Brazil on a knife edge

24 October 2005

“Should the sale of guns and ammunition to civilians be prohibited?” This is the question that 122 million Brazilians answered 'No' to as they went to the polls yesterday to vote in the first referendum on gun control in the world.

The daily crime statistics would seem to have pointed overwhelmingly to an obvious Yes vote. There are currently an estimated 17 million guns in Brazil and 39,000 firearms deaths every year. Over 500,000 people have been killed by guns between 1979 and 2003 – more than in any other country in the world, including those at war.

However, to combat these shocking statistics, the powerful ‘No’ lobby – supported by the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the US and accused of a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign – has been promulgating the commonly held belief that the guns used to commit crimes are those acquired on the illegal market or diverted from state security forces. Enforcement, they say, would allow criminals in possession of weapons already to further threaten the security of ‘ordinary’ citizens.

Such a view seems to have struck a chord with the electorate and reflects a mind-set entrenched within social and institutional spheres that has allowed a culture of violence to go unchecked for so long. Since the military government of the 1970s policing has become a matter of protecting one group a civilians from another. In a Manichean division of society drawn along economic (and therefore racial) lines, “ordinary” citizens are protected against the marginais, or “low-lifes”. Under this so-called “criminalisation of poverty”, the Polícia Militar (PM) continually demonise and target “subversive elements” of the population within poor, urban (favela) communities. Judges are able to issue collective warrants drawn against whole communities containing “genetic rubbish” in order to respond to “the cry of help and justice” by “honest” citizens.

Those that are seen to be dangerous are therefore literally removed from the streets in what the police advertise as a civil war. The disparity in mortality statistics tells a different story. In Rio in 2003, 1192 civilians were killed versus only 45 policemen in co-called “shoot-outs” in which the police are cast as the victims. Police power and police action have all too often become one and the same thing over the last two decades under a reductive methodology in which deaths are seen as evidence of effective and efficient policing. This results-oriented approach has been to the detriment of preventative policing and criminal investigation (over 90% of people are arrested in the act of committing a crime) and has led to the highest increase in prison population in the world (1995 to 2003 saw a 93% increase). The forced classification of prisoners by criminal faction in many prisons has lead to the perpetuation of factions within favela communities on the outside and further violent clashes on the inside.

It is clear that the democratisation of power does not necessarily bring the democratisation of institutions and the state. Authoritarian patterns of behaviour continue within state institutions including a culture of impunity amongst the security forces offering police an official mandate for violence against a crimal(ised) class. If, as David Bayley has famously asserted, “the police are to government as the edge is to a knife”, in Brazil the security forces have cut through the rule of law, severing notions of citizenship and tearing up the liberal tradition by its roots. Brazil is still a long way from upholding the 5th article of its constitution guaranteeing equality under the law and the discourse of human rights continues to be degraded in the public sphere as offering privileges for “bandits” whilst acting against the concerns of “good citizens”.

There remains a suspicion by many that the government’s disarmament campaign – begun in 2003 under President Lula – is a mere gesture to both the public and to the watching world whilst the will to true institutional reform remains a long way off. Whilst not a solution to Brazil’s security problems the banning of guns would have been a crucial first step – especially after the sale of guns has soared in the months leading up to the vote – on the road towards reform and must be viewed as a missed opportunity. The government must now act to bring about weighty and long-term commitments to reform the police and changing a public and institutional mindset that continues to cut Brazilian society into good and bad, rich and poor.

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