Contrary to stereotype, the murder rate is falling
ASK foreigners what comes to mind when they think of Brazil, and a teenage gunman wearing flip-flops may not be far behind pirouetting footballers or carnival dancers in sequined bikinis. This image partly reflects the success abroad of films such as “City of God” and, more recently, a violent tale about Rio de Janeiro’s rampaging police called “Elite Squad”. It is also grounded in fact. One recent study suggested that Brazil had the fourth-highest murder rate among the world’s larger countries, behind Venezuela, Russia and Colombia. Since Brazil has 190m people, this adds up to a lot of corpses.
But something unforeseen is happening. The number of murders in Brazil is falling (see chart). Most of the improvement is due to a sharp fall in São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state. Figures released by São Paulo’s government show that the number of murders has halved in the past five years. Strip out this state and things look less good. But there have been some improvements elsewhere. In Rio de Janeiro state the murder rate has declined from a high of 64 per 100,000 people in the mid-1990s to 39 last year. All this suggests that more recent national figures, when they are available, may see an acceleration in the downward trend.
Even those who question the integrity of police statistics, like Sérgio Adorno of the University of São Paulo, say that something has changed. Nowhere more so than in places like Jardim Ângela, a poor suburb of São Paulo. In the 1990s it was dubbed the world’s most violent neighbourhood. That prompted a reaction, led by James Crowe, an Irish Catholic priest who has worked there for the past 17 years. It began with a pilgrimage to the nearby São Luís cemetery, where so many young men were buried. It resulted, among other things, in the creation of Brazil’s first community police force. The murder rate there has fallen from the equivalent of 112 per 100,000 people in 1995 to 33 in 2006.
There is much academic debate as to what else might lie behind the fall in São Paulo’s murder rate. Perhaps this is not surprising: argument continues over what caused a similar decline in the United States during the 1990s. In São Paulo’s case, there seem to be three reasons.
The first is tighter gun-control. A 2003 law restricted the right to carry guns. A subsequent amnesty and gun buyback programme took half a million weapons off the streets. The following year saw the first drop in the murder rate. A new effort to take more guns out of circulation will begin later this year.
Second, changes to policing have played their part. Killings involving São Paulo’s police have declined (at one point in the early-1990s they accounted for a fifth of all violent deaths). According to Josephine Bourgois of the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, a research group, the police have also become better at solving murders. A 700-strong murder squad was set up, and claims to have raised the proportion of homicides that are solved from the national average of just 8% to 70%. The squad uses computer profiling to spot patterns and to act preventively.
The third factor is demographics. The 1990s saw a bulge in the proportion of 19-24 year-olds, which coincided with a rise in youth crime, points out Alicia Bercovich of IBGE, the statistics agency. Between 2000 and 2006, the proportion of 15-24-year-olds in São Paulo’s population fell slightly, from 19.4% to 17.6%.
In some places these broader trends have been reinforced with local changes, such as requiring bars to close earlier. A decline in the use of crack cocaine may also have helped. Finally, in some areas of São Paolo a criminal gang called the Primeiro Comando da Capital has acquired a temporary monopoly of criminal thuggery, reducing the need to kill rivals. Yet problems such as gang violence become easier to deal with when the murder rate is falling. If it continues to do so, at least one Brazilian stereotype may need to be retired.