Federative Republic of Brazil /
República Federativa de Brasil
Democracy and Citizen Security Democracia y Seguridad Ciudadana

Democracy and Citizen Security / Index / Overview


Since the early 1990s, crime, insecurity, and armed violence have increased dramatically in Brazil. In the city of São Paulo, for example, one of every 20 citizens were victims of armed robberies during 2002, at a rate of 1,704 incidents daily as reported by the Fernand Braudel Institute of World Economics. In 2003, according to the Ministry of Health, the homicide rate in Brasil reached a peack of 28,9 per 100.000 inhabitants, double the rate in 1980. While much of the violence is credited by some analysts to social inequalities and high rates of unemployment, an increasing contingent of journalists, mayors, judges and union leaders have been shot in gang-related killings for threatening the schemes of organized criminal gangs and other powerful groups that often include politicians and business people.

While violence has not spared any particular social group, it is in the peripheral communities of big urban centres that the phenomenon is manifested most intensively. For example, although the homicide rate in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in the year of 2001 was, respectively, 54 and 59 per 100,000 inhabitants, it jumps to close to 200 per 100,000 when the object of analysis is the urban poor. These rates are comparable, and even exceed, some countries that have been plagued by ongoing civil war and are conventionally considered 'crisis' countries.

The high number of homicides however, is just one facet of the violence in Brazil. Criminal gangs, acting with increased brazenness, have been responsible for terrorism scenes and the spread of panic. During the year 2006, for example, an organized crime group known as PCC (Primeiro Comando da Capital) coordinated a series of bombings, burning of buses and policemen assassinations in the city of São Paulo to protest the sudden transfer of some of the group leaders to a maximum-security prison in the interior of the country. The attacks, which lasted three days and made the biggest city of South America virtually stop, were ordered from within a maximum-security prison by PCC's mastermind Marco Camacho, known as Marcola. Using a cell phone, Marcola coordinated the various simultaneous attacks, which caused the death of 160 people, most of them innocent civilians.

Tones of terrorism also characterized the assassination of seven year-old João Helio, in Rio de Janeiro in the beginning of 2007. Dragged for seven kilometres by a group of teenagers attempting to rob a car, the boy became the face of another nationwide protest against the high levels of violence in Brazil. In a specific way, though, it brought to the fore the delicate question of the age limit to send a person to prison. Today in Brazil, teenagers under 18 years old cannot be sent to a common prison to pay for their crimes. Instead, they are put under the tutelage of the State and sent to a reformatory organization where they are expected to receive education, psychological help and be rescued from the criminal life. These institutions, however, seem to work as authentic schools of crime, where teenagers are frequently beaten and crowded in small cells. When they return back to freedom, they usually engage in the same and new criminal activities.

And the prospects of poor teenagers to join criminal gangs have been growing in an accelerated rhythm in Brazil. Many start the life of crime as early as 8 years old, recruited by drug lords. In spite of the implicit risks of drug dealing, a growing number of youngsters have been joining the activity, seduced by the possibilities of making considerable amounts of money in a short period of time. In Rio de Janeiro's numerous slums, children and teenagers are supplied with machines guns and positioned in strategic points to monitor the daily movement of dwellers and report any suspicious happening to the drug lords. They integrate the legion of delinquents that support the lucrative business of drug dealing and which, as the PCC in São Paulo, have been responsible for true warlike scenes in the beautiful coastal city of Rio. Deaths by stray bullets resulting from rival drug gangs disputes, for example, have become as common as did terrorist-like actions by drug dealers.

As former Nacional Security Secretary, Coronel José Vicente da Silva Filho, recently reminded us that the absence of effective intelligence and coordination among state and federal agencies in the area of public security have left room for gangs to develop a command hierarchy capable of organizing large-scale actions and build an army of experienced and well-supplied fighters who impose their authority in the slums and intimidate police authorities and dwellers of richer neighbourhoods.

Experts Emilio Dellasoppa and Soraia Branco also see the lack of coordination among the main obstacles to the effective combat against violence. They argue, for example, that violence came to be dealt with in Brazil almost exclusively in a reactive manner. In this sense, as crimes explode in the media, authorities are quick to raise the budget for public security initiatives, announce national plans, vote on tougher legislation and put large scale operations in place in slums and other at-risk areas. However, there is little strategic planning and almost no coordination between the bodies carrying out the interventions, which limits the capacity of the authorities to take a real step torward a safer country. This is the case, for example, with the National Public Security Plan (PNSP). As Dellasoppa and Branco recalled, the Plan, first launched in 2000 by president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and then reedited by president Lula in 2003, has focused too much on what to do and not on how to do it. While this helped the various agents in public security to detect the "enemy" and the necessary tools to destroy it, it has not enabled those agents to engage in an efficient collective action that can yield practical results.

Despite the shortfalls, the Brazilian government has been making important progress in the sector of public security. A law approved in May 2007, for example, facilitates the cooperation between municipal, state and national levels of government for initiatives in the area of public security. This is an important initiative to break what had been a traditional dispute for funds and exchange of blame between the three levels of government. Another important initiative was taken in 2003, when Congress approved what became known as the "Disarmament Estatute", a set of measures to curb the proliferation of fire arms in the country. One of this measures determine that the registration of fire arms should be renewed every three years under the risk of a prison term that varies from 1 to 3 years and heavy fees. While the attempt to outlaw the sale of guns to civilians was defeated in a national referendum in 2006, inteligent public policies and legislation such as the "Disarmament Estatute" are already yielding postive results in the fight against violence. As a 2007 study by the Ministry of Health shows, the "Disarmament Estatute" played an important role in reducing in 12% the number of deaths by fire arms between 2003 and 2006. Also, the homicide rate has fallen in the last years. According to the Ministry of Healt, the homicide rate for 2005 was 25,8 per 100,000 inhabitants and preliminary data suggested that for 2006, this rate had fallen to 24 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

But what may be the most important advance in the area of public security is the government's encouragement of a new approach to violence, characterized by the involvement of civil society, partnerships with the private sector and the recognition of the importance to control crime by preventing it. Launched in early 2007, the Programa Nacional de Segurança Pública com Cidadania, will allocate R$4,8 billion (about US$2.4 billion) toward actions that integrate security policies and social interventions in the 11 most violent metropolitan areas of the country. The goal is to fight the social and cultural causes of the crime by a mix of preventive, controlling and repressive actions, all of which will be coordinated between the national, state and municipal levels.

While the advances being made in the public security sector are promising, Brazil currently suffers enormous losses because the widespread violence. According to a study by the Inter-American Development Bank, the annual cost of violence in Brazil is US$ 84 billion or 10.5% of the country's GDP), including public sector, individuals and enterprises expenditures as well as patrimony losses. The deficit of investment in public security has led to a boom in the private security business, which is among the fastest-growing sectors of Brazil's economy. In 2000, the Federal Police registered some 4,000 firms with 540,000 employees offering private security services, along with many other unlicensed providers.

While violence and criminality in Brazil may still be concentrated within certain geographic areas and demographic segments, its impact pervades all of the country. A recent survey has found that 59% of all residents of Rio de Janeiro do not feel safe when they walk the streets of their city. In Recife and São Paulo the percentages were 58 and 57% respectively. As violence and criminality is also an issue of perception, emotion, and quality of life, it is fair to say that Brazil's security situation is sufficiently precarious that it affects the every day life of the country's citizenry.

(*) Compiled by Valeria O. Buffo based on the following works:

Fernand Braudel Institute, "A Plan of Action : Public Security in Brazil", Paper Nº 33, 2003. Available at http://www.braudel.org.br/publicacoes/bp/bp34_en.pdf

United Nations Development Program and World Health Organization, Project Support for Armed Violence Program, 2005. Available at: http://www.undp.org/bcpr/documents/armed_violence/pro_docs/Rev_A_-_Prodoc_-_texto.doc

Delasoppa, Emilio and Zoraia Saint'Clair Branco, "Brazil's Public-Security Plans" in John Bailey and Lucía Dammert (eds), Public Security and Police Reform in the Americas, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006.

Last Update: September 15, 2007