Sunday, September 07, 2008

Violence in Brazil

I was born in Rio in 1974 and was raised in Porto Alegre, south of Brazil. In 1998 I moved to Canada to work with software. Along with the majority of Brazilians, I too know well how violence affects daily living there. I was only robbed twice, but I know of too many sad stories of violence. One cousin of mine was robbed thrice at gunpoint while entering his car. Another cousin took a series of bad decisions in life and was assassinated by order of the local drug lord in Rio. She was a mother of two at the time. In the many circles of conversation of Brazilians I have sat, stories of violence are an unavoidable theme. If you get a chance to sit in a circle like that, ask them to tell some of these stories. Albeit being a Canadian citizen now (my garage is full of stuff and I learned to skate on ice), I keep my Brazilian identity. My parents, my in-laws and many of my friends live there. This and other inexplicable reasons maintain alive within me a keen interest in the country.

I was listening to a Brazilian journalist in August who was comparing numbers of the violence in Iraq and in Rio de Janeiro[1]. Rio de Janeiro is one among 26 States in the Federation. The rate of killings was higher in Rio de Janeiro than in Iraq in the beginning of 2008. As he was saying, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count website, from January to May 3458 Iraqis – both militaries and civilians – were killed. For the same period in Rio de Janeiro, according to official records from the Secretaria de Segurança Pública, there were 2441 homicides, 87 deaths by thievery, 17 episodes of bodily harm followed by death and 6 policemen killed in action, yielding a total of 2551 assassinations. Considering that the population of Iraq is twice bigger than that of Rio de Janeiro, one can say that Rio’s death toll is higher than Iraq’s.

Death by the police is also a concern. According to official records, in the State of São Paulo the police killed 538 people in the first half of 2006, an increase of 87% from same semester in the previous year. Police in Rio de Janeiro, in turn, killed 694 people in the first semester of 2007. As one Brazilian friend of mine here in Ottawa says half-joking, if he’s ever caught between fires of police against thieves, he’ll run towards the thieves.

Unfortunately, violence is not restricted to the largest urban centres. It is in fact spread over large regions of the country (if you ask me I can show you a map). It affects the daily habits of common people in practice. The book Violência Urbana [2] takes a serious look at urban violence. I believe the authors stated the following not in an alarmist but rather thoughtful way:

“The notions of security and communitarian life were substituted by the feeling of insecurity and by the isolation that fear imposes. The other is not seen any more as a potential partner; the unknown one is seen as a threat. The feeling of insecurity transforms and disfigures life in our cities.”

For those interested in knowing more about violence in Brazil I recommend the movies “Ônibus 174” - a documentary by Padilha and Lacerda (which reminds me of highway 174 here in Ottawa, where I drive almost daily) - and “Cidade de Deus” (City of God) by Lins and others.

As a Christian, I am reminded of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is one of the PG-rated parables of Jesus for scenes of violence. The religious characters of the parable did not help the victim precisely because of their religious duties and rituals. This is one reason why I value a Christianity that is not restricted to a Sunday morning moment but is intertwined with daily living and action. And this is also one reason why I fear an idolatry of the religious experience that alienates one from these difficult realities.

Gustavo K-fé Frederico

[1] Diogo Mainardi’s podcast, Veja magazine, 5/Aug/2008

[2] Violência Urbana, by Paulo Pinheiro and Guilherme Almeida, 2003 (ISBN-13: 978-85-7402-483-7)

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