Violence in Brazil
An article by Gustavo Frederico
An elementary school teacher in Rio de Janeiro, a friend of mine, described once how he and the students had to duck under the tables, caught in the crossfire. In December of 2013 at a penitentiary in Maranhão, three men were decapitated in a riot. Allegedly, leader inmates would extort others to have sex with their wives during visits and the three turned down the proposal. Because of the riot, the Government “occupied” the overcrowded prison. In retaliation to that, inmates ordered from within the prison a wave of violence in São Luís, with four buses burned and police stations attacked. On the 14th of July of 2013, Amarildo Dias de Souza, a father-of-six construction worker, was taken by police for questioning during Operation Armed Peace, a crackdown against the poor (or drug traffickers, depending on the version) in Rocinha, the largest slum of Rio de Janeiro. Amarildo was tortured for 40 minutes by four police officers, with plastic bags and drowning. The Justice system today charges 25 police officers with involvement in his death. The operation was part of the so-called Pacifying Police Units, or UPPs, new units of the police in that city that occupy slums with heavy weapons to enforce “peace”. These are only a few stories of many that I could mention.
Violence is part of everyone’s everyday life in Brazil, even though certain groups are disproportionally more affected. For instance, homicide rates of blacks is twice as high as that of whites. Two well-known movies show how violence is commonplace for all: “City of God” and “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within”. A poll by the IPEA Institute in 2010 found that 79% of the population is very much afraid of being assassinated. Only one in ten is not afraid of being assassinated. The homicide rate was 27.1 per 100 thousand inhabitants in 2011, with 106,603 homicides. While there was a noticeable decrease in the national rate around 2005, it still oscillated in recent years, and the total number of deaths is still very high. The official numbers recorded from 1980 to 2011 is of 2,347,082 violent deaths in Brazil. The rate in Canada in 2012 was 1.56 per 100 thousand inhabitants, the lowest since 1966. In the State of Alagoas, the homicide rate for young black individuals in 2011 was 201.2 per 100 thousand inhabitants. That is twice higher the homicide rate of Honduras, which ranks country number one in violence in the world.
The “Map of Violence 2013” published by the Sangari Institute compares some numbers taking the “Global Burden of Armed Violence” report of the Geneva Declaration Secretariat. In the top 12 armed conflicts in the world from 2004 to 2007 - including Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Colombia, Congo, etc - there were officially 169,574 direct deaths. During the same period, Brazil officially recorded 206,005. In fact, that number is closer to the total official number of direct deaths of the top 62 armed conflicts in the world combined in the period: 208,349.
Brazil is a country of contrasts. A general notion abroad is that the economy is getting better after president Lula came to power in 2003. The most recent census, however, indicate that around 11 million inhabitants suffer from hunger. The prison population grew 400% in the previous 20 years, being the 4th largest in the world today with 574,000 inmates. Even being the sixth largest economy in the world today, the country ranks very low worldwide in income distribution. While poverty and income inequality have decreased in the previous decade, with 35 million people out of extreme poverty, the rates of violence did not show similar decline in the period. From 2000 to 2009, the national homicide rate has stayed relatively stable around 26 deaths per 100 thousand inhabitants per year.
The Catholic National Conference of Bishops of Brazil promotes yearly the “Fraternity Campaigns” during the Lent season with different themes. Violence was the theme of 2009, 1983 and 1973. In 2004 and 2005, there was a national disarmament campaign involving different religious organizations, NGOs and the Government. More than 220 churches were collection points of firearms. With that, however, we cannot say that non-violence is a noticeable characteristic of Christian institutions in Brazil. Sadly, many Christian politicians and practitioners often profess troublesome discourses that are incompatible with a message of non-violence.
The Mennonite Central Committee had an office in Brazil for 44 years. It was closed in 2012. Most of the work focused on rural programs (water access, food security projects and health programs), while the latter years had local programs with issues of family violence and peace education in the city of Recife.