Homicides Are Down In Brazil. But It's Not Time For A Victory Lap
Deadly violence in Brazil remains disturbingly high. And an improvement in recent homicide figures has much more to do with changing criminal dynamics than with the policies of the last president.
Recent data shows that Brazil recorded 40,824 homicides in 2022 — an average of 111 violent deaths per day. This is high, the equivalent of one out of every five homicides in the world occurring in Brazil. But it is also a 1 percent decrease from the previous year, and the lowest number in the historical series dating back to 2007.
At first glance, this seems to lend credence to far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro’s view on fighting crime. He advocated the indiscriminate use of firearms by the general population as a policy to curb violence. Criminals would “think twice” before robbing an “armed, law-abiding citizen,” he argued. Gun registrations increased by nearly 80 percent between 2019 and 2022, the duration of Mr. Bolsonaro’s term.
However, experts deny that the drop in homicides last year is linked to Mr. Bolsonaro’s pro-gun, tough-on-crime discourse.
Another important reason is the cooling off of the urban war between drug gangs that has raged in Brazil’s urban peripheries since the 1980s, particularly in the largest cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and which has been characterized by bloody disputes over territory and markets.
It is not that this urban conflict has ceased to exist. But it has become more “professionalized” and has migrated to more remote areas.
A geographical shift
Brazil's overall homicide rate has been on the decline, albeit intermittently, since 2017. That year, the country experienced one of its worst security crises ever, when nearly 200 inmates were murdered in fights between organized crime gangs in penitentiaries across the country.
This reflected an open conflict between Brazil’s major criminal organizations for control of drug trafficking routes in the northern states, in the heart of the Amazon. With control already divided and established over the territories of southeastern states — where violent deaths were concentrated in the 1980s and 1990s — the drug gangs turned to the coveted and poorly policed forest routes.
Cities in the Amazon began to record above-average homicide rates. It was the only region where murders actually increased last year.
In Macapá, the capital of Amapá state, for example, there were more than 60 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2021. That is a higher rate than in any of the world's most violent countries. (For comparison, the most violent country in the world that year was Jamaica, with 45 deaths per 100,000 people.)
Brazil’s Amazon region is a prime location for narcotics trafficking. It borders the major drug-producing countries of Colombia and Peru, as well as Venezuela, through which flow not only drugs but also weapons, timber, and the spoils of illegal fishing and poaching. The Brazilian Amazon is also rife with other criminal activities, such as land grabbing and illegal mining.
The region’s high levels of violence were laid bare for the world to see last year with the murders of Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips.
The ‘professionalization’ of the criminal underworld
The war of 2017 was not good for business, even for criminals, say experts.
"If [organized crime gangs] wanted to continue in the business, it was necessary to create the conditions for the various actors to coexist and make money," writes Bruno Paes Manso, a public security researcher at the University of São Paulo.
For the past five years, a truce has been in place between Brazil’s main drug trafficking organizations. Some point out that this stems from the professionalization of these groups, with the notable use of "business" tactics.
The largest drug gangs — especially the São Paulo-born First Command of the Capital (PCC) — have taken over local groups. They instituted an internal policy that members would be taken care of if they remained loyal, which brought in new members and reduced clashes with rival groups. Meanwhile, the PCC top brass made deals that increased the presence of their products in domestic and international markets.
Almost all of the PCC's leaders are in prison, controlling the business from inside their cells. This business model was facilitated by the creation of large maximum security prisons in the early 2000s, which brought the incarcerated leaders together, and by the cartels’ reach at the regional level — leading to this "business model" being mimicked throughout most of Brazil.
The U.S. government describes the PCC as “the most powerful organized crime group in Brazil and among the most powerful in the world.”
The so-called "bureaucratization of crime" is not the only explanation for the decline in homicides. With fewer security resources and law enforcement infrastructure, it is much more difficult to report violent crimes in Brazil's northern states.
"In some states, the quality of information is poor, the cause of the homicide is unknown, the police do not investigate, or there is not even a computer to record it correctly. There is great precariousness in this area, and at the same time that violence is migrating there," says Ana Maria Nogales Vasconcelos, a demographer at the University of Brasília.
An indication of this situation is that the number of homicides listed as "cause unknown" more than doubled between 2017 and 2021, reaching more than 21,000, the highest level in the historical series. There was also an increase of more than 3 percent in missing persons. The Brazilian Reportflagged that trend back in 2021.
On a more positive note, there has been a drop in police lethality rates. The biggest decrease was in São Paulo, where deaths at the hands of the police fell from 814 in 2020 to 570 in 2021. This trend is easily explained by the use of body cameras on police uniforms. Official data shows that the number of deaths at the hands of on-duty police officers fell by 87 percent in battalions that started using cameras.
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