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Brazil’s Murder Rate Finally Fell—and by a Lot
Bolsonaro will claim credit for the good news, but his policies may erase the country’s hard-won gains.
One of the world’s most homicidal countries just registered the sharpest overall decline of lethal violence in its history. Brazil’s murder rate dropped by a whopping 13 percent between 2017 and 2018, from more than 59,000 people killed to just over 51,000. And homicides fell by 25 percent in the first two months of 2019 compared with the same period last year. The rapid improvement in public security, unheralded as it may be, is one of the biggest positive news stories in Brazil right now.
Even better, the recent murder decline is nationwide, although some states witnessed greater improvements than others: Alagoas, Acre, Espírito Santo, Minas Gerais, Pernambuco, Rio Grande do Norte, Rio Grande do Sul, and Santa Catarina all saw murder rates fall by between 21 and 24 percent over the past year. Massive states such as Bahia, Ceará, Paraná, and São Paulo registered declines of between 10 and 15 percent. Just four states—Amapá, Pará, Tocantins, and Roraima—saw double-digit increases in lethal violence between 2017 and 2018.
The spectacular turnaround has many causes. But one thing is certain: The drop in lethal violence started well before the election of the self-styled crime-fighter-in-chief, President Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected in October 2018. Despite his attempts to claim these successes as his own, there is little evidence that his administration has had anything to do with the drop in murders. To the contrary, since his election, some types of crime, including police killings, have become more frequent. Indeed, at least four factors offer better explanations for the recent decline in murders.
First, even by Brazilian standards, 2017 was an unusually violent year. In fact, it was the most murderous year in the country’s history. A key reason was the outbreak of open war between Brazil’s two main drug trafficking organizations, the First Capital Command (PCC) and the Red Command. The two had struck up a truce in 1997. When it fell apart in the middle of 2016, a wave of gruesome attacks and reprisal violence spread from the country’s prisons to its cities.
By 2018, though, the PCC had largely secured a dominant position across the country. To be sure, this does not mean that peace has broken out: There are still states and cities, especially in the north and northeast, where violence is off the charts. In fact, Brazil is home to 17 of the 50 most homicidal cities in the world. But there are signs that the PCC has adopted a strategy of accommodation with competing criminal factions and restored a tenuous equilibrium to illegal drugs markets.
Second, starting in 2017, the administration of President Michel Temer instituted several measures to better coordinate a national response to organized crime. For example, in 2018, Temer created a Ministry of Public Security and crafted a policy to improve cooperation and intelligence sharing between federal and state police (known as the Sistema Único de Segurança Pública). These innovations were complemented with cash infusions and military deployments to regain control over a number of state prisons.
Third, for years, state governments have been experimenting with new strategies for fighting organized crime and preventing criminal violence. Consider the case of São Paulo—where murder rates dropped from more than 52 per 100,000 in 1999 to six per 100,000 by 2017. Part of the reason for this is that the PCC exerted a kind of “pax mafiosa” that curbed violence among drug trafficking factions. Improvements there also come down to a series of police reforms designed to improve data collection, allow real-time crime mapping, and enhance police training and coordination. Added to this are prevention measures involving, for example, targeted urban renewal in neighborhoods plagued by crime and limits placed on licenses to sell alcohol late at night.
But Brazil’s biggest state was not alone. Many others have also pursued intelligence-led and data-driven policing. In Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, and Pernambuco, for example, state authorities worked to improve coordination between the military and civil police, prosecutors, and penal authorities, and they’ve promoted targeted violence prevention programs in partnership with affected communities. These investments are finally starting to pay off.
The state of Alagoas, for example, witnessed a 26 percent reduction in homicide between 2017 and 2018. According to the state secretary for public security, Alagoas ramped up intelligence-led policing in 2015. The military, civil police, and fire service coordinated their operations with the federal and road police to disrupt organized crime. Similar policing and crime prevention strategies were also launched over the past decade in Ceará, Paraíba, Rio de Janeiro, and Santa Catarina.
Fourth, it is likely that the deployment of additional military and police helped tamp down organized crime in some parts of the country. For example, the state government of Pernambuco recruited more than 1,200 new military and civil police between 2017 and 2018. Likewise, in Rio, a federal intervention involving more than 8,500 troops launched in the summer of 2018 helped reduce intentional homicide and other violent and nonviolent crimes. After repeated requests from the state governor of Ceará, in January 2019, the new Bolsonaro government authorized more than 300 soldiers to restore order in Fortaleza, which had been wracked by coordinated attacks from various drug trafficking factions.
The dramatic expansion of police and military presence may temporarily deter crime, but the effects often evaporate once they leave. Criminal factions simply wait out the security forces. An overreliance on aggressive policing usually generates dangerous side effects. In fact, Brazil experienced an 18 percent increase in lethal use of force by the police between 2017 and 2018. Police killed at least 6,160 people last year—almost six times the toll in the United States.
The fall in homicidal violence in Brazil is undoubtedly good news, but it would be premature to declare victory. A 1.5-year decline, while impressive, does not yet constitute a trend. More than 1 million Brazilians have been murdered since 2000. Homicides had risen steadily for almost two decades, and despite recent improvements, the country is still the murder capital of the world. Prison violence is disturbingly common, which explains why the current administration has made isolating gang bosses, ramping up surveillance, building more jails, and deploying military forces to them top priorities.
The federal government could consolidate recent gains if it implemented the national public security plan that was created by the Ministry of Public Security in 2018. It would send a strong signal by setting out clear homicide reduction targets and performance indicators. A national plan that mandated and resourced better supervision, training, and professional development for law enforcement agencies could accelerate homicide reduction and generate a lasting impact. To his credit, the new justice and public security minister has said he intends to strengthen state-level data collection and analysis capabilities. But his principal proposal—a package of legislative reforms advocating harder sentences and improvements in investigation—is languishing in the Brazilian National Congress. And even if it is passed, the package does not go nearly far enough
No matter the country, the most effective lethal violence reduction strategies are comprehensive. They balance police and prevention priorities. Promoting better cooperation among police forces, prosecutors, and penal authorities is essential. But so are investments focusing on at-risk places and people, as well as clear-headed plans to reduce prison populations and improve conditions in the jail system. These measures will take time, certainly longer than any one election cycle. What patently does not work, in Brazil or anywhere, are narrowly conceived strategies that emphasize police crackdowns, stiffer sentences, and mass incarceration alone.
The tough-on-crime talk that helped Bolsonaro win the presidency may have played well with voters, but it does not translate into effective homicide reduction. To the contrary, it may even encourage the military and police to use excessive force and increase retaliatory violence from criminal organizations. In 2019, the security forces stand accused of killing more than 26 people in high-profile incidents in Rio and São Paulo alone. If Brazil’s political leaders can move past incendiary rhetoric and double down on strategies that have been proved to work, continued improvements may be possible. But if they persist with polarizing slogans and punitive strategies alone, then we can expect lethal violence to worsen once more.