Why you should care
Rio de Janeiro is becoming a homicide hub.
Rio de Janeiro Gov. Wilson Witzel has one objective in mind when he flies heavily armed helicopter patrols above his state’s sprawling favelas.
“We will bring order to this house,” says the Brazilian right-winger, flanked by military police bearing assault rifles, in one of his livestreamed videos posted on social media. “[We will] finish with this banditry that is terrorizing our wonderful city.”
Between police killings, gang murders and random shootings, the seaside state reports a homicide rate of 39 deaths for every 100,000 people, surpassing the nationwide rate of 27 per 100,000 — a level itself extremely high by international standards. Rio has become a symbol of the security challenge Brazil’s gun-loving right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has pledged to tackle.
The rate marks a jump from a low of 23.6 deaths per 100,000 in 2015, when the city, in full preparation for the 2016 Olympic Games, deployed an array of innovative but expensive strategies to stop the killings.
About 250 miles south of Rio de Janeiro, the situation could not be more different: Playing host to pitched firefights less than 20 years ago, São Paulo is now considered an oasis of calm. Brazil’s biggest state by contribution to gross domestic product last year reported a homicide rate of roughly 10 per 100,000, the lowest in the country. The city alone has experienced an almost 90 percent drop in homicides since 2001.
The extent of São Paulo’s violent crime drop is breathtaking.
Robert Muggah, research director, Igarapé Institute
The diverging fortunes of the nation’s two most famous states have prompted criminologists, politicians and experts to question why this happened and what lessons Rio can learn from Brazil’s largest city, its rival on the national stage.
“The extent of São Paulo’s violent crime drop is breathtaking,” says Robert Muggah, research director at the Igarapé Institute, a security-focused think tank in Rio de Janeiro. “Rio de Janeiro’s oscillating murder rates are no less stunning.”
A “key factor” in São Paulo’s success has been sustained investment in public security, says Muggah. “Successive governors and public security secretaries prioritized oversight of military and civil police, education and training of new recruits and smarter deployment of existing assets.” Better coordination between the civil and military police has also helped, he says.
“It is a historically well-managed government,” says João Doria, governor of São Paulo, underlining how successive leaders have guided the state through difficult times, including a two-year recession that only finished in 2017.
In contrast, Rio declared bankruptcy in 2016 in the wake of the infamous Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption scandal that implicated scores of senior businessmen and politicians and brought the state’s economy to a shuddering halt. Funds dried up and the state cut back on initiatives, such as the community policing schemes that had, albeit controversially, been credited with reducing the death toll.
“Rio de Janeiro has been buffeted by significant political scandals, economic deterioration and a collapse of state and municipal leadership. Innovative strategies to reduce violent crime since 2008 were either prematurely interrupted or dismantled owing to lack of funds,” Muggah says.
These cutbacks allowed for the resurgence of criminal gangs, as well as the spread of militia groups run by former police officers. The militias have expanded to fill the space left by the state — they extort local businesses, dominate the market for informal local transport, the sale of commercial and residential property and more.
“There is not a state anymore. The law of the jungle is the law,” says Bruno Paes Manso, an expert on organized crime at the University of São Paulo. “Prosecutors estimate 40 percent of the state of Rio de Janeiro is run by militia groups.”
São Paulo’s better economic fortunes are not the only reason for its improved security. The growing professionalization of organized crime has also been a factor. While Rio is home to a handful of warring gangs — such as the bloodied Comando Vermelho, or Red Command — and militias, the criminal landscape in São Paulo is dominated by one player — the Primeiro Comando da Capital, or PCC.
Established in the early 1990s, the PCC flourished in São Paulo’s overcrowded prisons, where it acted as a kind of union for inmates in the face of guard brutality. With the spread of cellphones in the early 2000s, the group quickly harnessed the technology, as well as its massive network of convicts and ex-convicts, to sell drugs, including cocaine and crack cocaine.
The PCC recognized that violence was bad for business and only attracted police scrutiny, so it opted for a “more professional way,” says Manso, outlining how the 30,000-member gang created a structured system for selling narcotics, typically via WhatsApp. “São Paulo is today the least violent state, but it is the most important market for drugs,” he remarks.
In São Paulo, “we have a monopoly. There is no war because we have a monopoly in organized crime,” says Renato Sérgio de Lima, president of the Brazilian Forum on Public Security.
Meanwhile, Witzel’s helicopter mission is just the latest reprise in a familiar act for the residents of Rio de Janeiro.
Between February and December last year the Brazilian army sent thousands of troops to maintain order in the state’s favelas. The deployment, however, had little impact on the killings. Overall, the number of Brazilians killed by the police is on the rise — up almost 20 percent last year from the previous year.
“In Brazil, there is a strong sense that violence is a solution, not a problem; that if you want order, you need violence,” Manso says. “But the people living in the favelas don’t want to be humiliated by the army or the state. If you treat them like enemies, they will organize against the state, they will see the state as their enemy.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Unzelte in São Paulo.
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