How to End Brazil's Homicide Epidemic

Jan 07, 2014 | Updated Mar 09, 2014

Co-authored by Daniel Mack*

As Brazilians hastily prepare for the 2014 World Cup, there is one competition the country has already won by a landslide: homicides. Almost one out of every ten people violently killed each year on the planet were residents of Brazil. With over 47,000 reported homicides in 2012, it is one of the most violent countries on earth. The homicide rate has risen steadily since the 1980s, reaching 21 per 100,000 people in recent years, with some analysts claiming it is likely higher. The latest polls indicate that up to three quarters of Brazilians fear they could be victims of murder in the coming year. Strangely, the government lacks a national strategy to tackle this epidemic.

As disconcerting as they are, national statistics conceal hugely diverging variations in victimization at the state and city levels. A recent seminar on gun homicides found that residents of the northeastern state of Alagoas die in much greater numbers than in the rest of the country - some 110 per 100,000, an increase of 185% over the past few years. If Alagoas were a country, it would surpass Honduras as the most violent nation in the world. Meanwhile, states like São Paulo, while still experiencing severe violence, witnessed dramatic reductions in homicide - over 70% in the last decade.

While the exact proportion varies by state, at least three quarters of all murders are committed with firearms, an overwhelming majority of which involves revolvers and pistols made in Brazil. Other characteristics of homicide and criminal violence remain constant across Brazil. For one, the vast majority of victims - over 90% - are poor young men, the majority of color. And most of the known perpetrators are also males between 18-30 years of age heralding from low-income settings, including favelas.

Disturbingly, in 80% of solved cases, both victims and perpetrators knew one another. Most victims were also killed close to home. Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that Brazilian (military) police kill more citizens than in virtually any other country in the world. Far from being dispersed and spontaneous, violence is geographically and demographically concentrated - and thus predictable.

The good news is that there are concrete steps that Brazilian decision-makers, business leaders and civil society can take to reverse this violence epidemic. As frightening a scenario as this is, lethal violence is preventable. Just like an illness, it can be diagnosed, treated and cured. What is needed is a comprehensive approach informed by evidence rather than ideology. Such a strategy must incorporate data-driven, law enforcement and preventive strategies. And to be sustainable, they should be accorded genuine political support and resources among federal and local decision-makers. If pursued with seriousness and enthusiasm, they would elevate citizen security as both a means and an end in itself.

A comprehensive approach would include intelligence-led "smarter" policing focused on hot spots where violence concentrates. Strategies would be based on credible information and analysis, including the sources, trafficking routes, and misuse of illicit firearms and ammunition. Preventive and proximity-oriented policing strategies would also need to tackle areas where young people agglomerate, not least nightclubs and bars. While intuitive, smarter interventions cannot emerge out of thin air. They will require a major shift in the organization, management and training of the police.

Just as important, an integrated strategy needs to privilege violence prevention as core priority of public security and safety. Alongside policing, social and economic policies must be developed that targeted young people who make up the largest share of perpetrators and victims of homicide. Preventive interventions should include efforts to manage excessive alcohol consumption and programs to treat and rehabilitate those involved with drugs (rather than incarcerating them as currently the case). They will also require engaging with new information technologies, together with old ones, including improved street lighting and neighborhood watch campaigns.

Homicidal violence is a barometer of the wider health of a society and the commitment of governments to guaranteeing its safety and well-being. By almost every measure, Brazil is a sickly patient and its public authorities are errant doctors. Yet Brazilians can end this tragedy. To do so will require the construction of a comprehensive and forward-looking public security policy in 2014. If Brazilians decide to face-up responsibly to the scale of the problem and start a mature discussion, the healing can begin.

*Robert Muggah is the research director of the Rio de Janeiro-based Igarapé Institute and is also a Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. Daniel Mack is a senior adviser to the São Paulo-based Instituto Sou da Paz.