Latin America

Why is Rio de Janeiro so dangerous?

Corruption and social exclusion behind rampant violence in Brazilian state, say experts

Police enter a poor Rio neighborhood in March 2014.
Police enter a poor Rio neighborhood in March 2014.REUTERS

When it comes to covering crime in Rio de Janeiro, a whole pack of reporters is needed for accurate daily coverage.

Just last month, 20 people were either wounded or killed by stray bullets during a 10-day period. One of those victims was Asafe William Costa, a nine-year-old who was killed instantly in front of his mother by a stray bullet as he emerged from a swimming pool to get a drink of water.

Then there is the notorious case of the military police shooting-death of an unarmed 22-year-old woman who was stopped because she was driving a certain type vehicle that is popular with car thieves.

Rio has the most number of murders committed by police than any other Brazilian state

Around this time in another area of Rio, members of the powerful Comand Vermelho drug gang dragged seven policemen from their homes in broad daylight and threatened to kill them.

While Brazil has the dubious honor of having the highest homicide rate in the world – with 56,337 killings reported in 2013 – Rio has the most number of murders committed by police than any other Brazilian state.

Military police blamed shoot-outs with drug trafficking gangs for the 17 injuries and three deaths caused by stray bullets at the beginning of the year. But the police’s reputation has been tarnished over the past few decades by violence and corruption.

Rio mayor Eduardo Paes (who is not responsible for security measures) believes that his city is unique when it comes to the causes of its violence.

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“The politically correct argument of blaming poverty is just too easy,” he tells EL PAÍS. “Violence doesn’t exist because of poverty; it is a police and judicial problem.”

The mayor also points to the widely held belief in the city that successful drug traffickers need to control a territory. “There is cocaine and marijuana in every western capital. But that crazy idea of thinking that traffickers need to dominate an area is one of our peculiarities [...].”

Julita Lemgruber, who served as the first female director of Rio’s volatile penitentiary system from 1991 to 1994, believes “it is very difficult to isolate one factor” behind the rampant violence.

“In the first place, the Rio de Janeiro police force has higher levels of violence and corruption compared to their counterparts in the rest of the country,” says Lemgruber, who is now a university professor. “I don’t want to generalize, but corruption is rampant. There is not one illegal operation that the police don’t have their hands in.”

There’s not an illegal operation the police don’t have their hands in”

She is referring to illegal protection squads: former officers, firemen and corrupt officials who demand payment from citizens to expel traffickers from their communities. But Lemgruber also argues that the state's official security forces are a big part of the problem.

“They are always present during the chain of events of a crime, even if it is only to offer protection,” she says.

Alberto Pinheiro Neto, the new commander of the military police, acknowledges that he has taken over a force “with serious ethical, moral and operational problems.”

“We are going to rebuild our institution,” he claims.

The secretary of state for security, José Mariano Beltrame, has also recognized the issue. Since he was appointed, more than 2,000 members of illegal protection squads have been arrested. But Beltrame believes there could be another underlying problem: arms trafficking.

One factor for the rampant violence is “the absence of civic recognition”

Anthropologist and university professor Ana Paula Miranda says that an important factor for the rampant violence centers on “the absence of civic recognition.”

“Brazil never was able to guarantee its citizens basic rights, so some forms of violence are associated with this. Look at how the police treat residents of the shantytowns. Violence is a way that they deal with the continuous exclusions they suffer. Sometimes poverty is confused with violence.”

Between 2009 and 2013, some 11,000 died at the hands of Brazilian security forces – an average of six people a day.

Both Lemgruber and Miranda criticize the “lack of security policies” in the country.

“We have repressive police action but no security policy, which isn’t the same,” Miranda said.

For Lemgruber, policies have swayed back and forth since 1983. “There have been moments where police violence is applauded and other moments in which human rights are demanded. This also occurs in peaceful areas. There are some who prefer a policy of approach while others believe it is better to shoot first and ask questions later.”

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