Brazil Authorities Simply Closed Thousands of Unsolved Murder Cases

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A policy initiative in Brazil aimed at expediting justice in homicide cases resulted instead in the mass closure of investigations, illustrating how institutional shortcomings can frustrate even well-intentioned public policies.

The initiative was part of the 2011 National Strategy for Justice and Public Security (Estratégia Nacional de Justiça e Segurança Pública – ENASP), created by the National Justice Council (Conselho Nacional de Justiça – CNJ), National Council of the Public Ministry (Conselho Nacional do Ministério Público – CNMP), and the Justice Ministry. Its objective was to accelerate police investigations into homicide cases from before 2008 that remained open, O Globo reported.

When the program came into force, there were more than 138,000 open homicide investigations nationwide that fell within that time frame. As of November 8, 2016, more than 104,000 of those cases had been “concluded.” However, 79 percent of the “concluded” investigations were simply closed, and only 19 percent were passed along to the judicial system. (See the data courtesy of Globo here in pdf format.)

The state of Rio de Janeiro, which had the highest number of unsolved murder investigations, also had the highest percentage of “concluded” cases that were simply closed, at 96 percent.

“This statistic is a scandal,” said Fabio Uchôa, a judge in Rio de Janiero. “It reflects…the impunity that occurs in the country, especially in Rio de Janeiro.”

These high levels of closed cases were not unique to the state of Rio de Janiero. In Paraíba, 87 percent of “concluded” investigations were simply closed. In Espírito Santo and Rondônia, the rate was 86 percent. Bahia and Sergipe closed 82 percent, while Rio Grande do Sul closed 80 percent and São Paulo and Santa Catarina closed 75 percent.

In just five states of the country, closed investigations accounted for less than half of the “concluded” cases: Amapá (45 percent), Piauí (44 percent), Acre (43 percent), Roraima (30 percent) and Pará (20 percent).

InSight Crime Analysis

Although the initiative was intended to encourage authorities to direct more resources to solving open murder cases, it appears to have instead pressured them in many instances to simply close the cases without further investigation. This may be partly due to a lack of the necessary investigative resources to handle the large number of murder cases, but other factors may also have played a role.

Reflecting on the disparities in closure rates, sociologist Julita Lemgruber of Cândido Mendes University said, “It’s not just a matter of whether the police have more or fewer resources to investigate homicides. In states that clearly have fewer resources than Rio de Janeiro, the number of investigations passed on to the judicial system was much higher.”

Lemgruber linked the high closure rates in major urban centers like Rio and São Paulo to the fact that most homicide victims in Brazil come from disadvantaged groups with relatively little political power. She suggested that authorities therefore had little incentive to seriously investigate the murders of victims who tend to be young, poor, dark-skinned people living in periferal areas.

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Regardless of the reasons or causes, these statistics are concerning. The fact that so many murders went unsolved raises questions about the ability of authorities to thoroughly investigate other crimes such as extortion, kidnapping and money laundering.

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