Violence in Brazil: all are targets, all are guilty

Arthur Ituassu
16 May 2006

At the moment this article is being written, the city of São Paulo is waking up to a fifth day of extreme social tension. During these last four days, people have been shot in the streets, policemen have been attacked inside their apartments, buses were incinerated, and public buildings have been targeted with homemade bombs. The latest statistics tell the story: 115 deaths (twenty-nine policemen, three metropolitan guards, eight prison officers, seventy-one bandits and four … citizens); fifty-three people injured; eighty-seven buses burned; 253 police stations attacked, fifteen bank agencies damaged; 115 suspects arrested.

The attacks, orchestrated by a crime organisation called Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), have spread fear through Brazil's largest city and exposed the most serious weakness facing the country in this presidential election year: the lack of a legitimate authority that can guarantee and secure the social and political life of the country.

Arthur Ituassu is professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica, Rio de Janeiro. His website is here

Also by Arthur Ituassu on Brazil in openDemocracy:

"Lula and Brazil: new beginning or dead end?" (May 2005)

"A big mess in Brazil" (June 2005)

"Lula: the dream is over" (August 2005)

"Brazil: never the same again" (October 2005)

"Farewell José, farewell 2005"
(December 2005)

"Lula's flame still burns" (January 2006)

"Lula in London"
(March 2006)

"Brazil's next winning team" (March 2006)

"The sum of all fears in Latin America"
(May 2006)

On the fifth day, the situation seems marginally better. The newspapers are talking about a possible deal. A three-hour meeting has been partially confirmed between two representatives of the government of the state of São Paulo, a lawyer (said to represent the families of 15,000 relatives of the state's prisoners), and eight PCC prisoners themselves (leaders of the crime organization that has brought fear to the paulistas).

The PCC's campaign this week had included a simultaneous rebellion of prisoners in forty state penitentiaries; this came to a halt on 16 May almost immediately after the meeting. It was also at this point that the state secretary responsible for prison issues, Nagashi Furukawa, announced that he is allowing the installation of sixty TVs in the prisons' common areas that will allow the inmates to watch the soccer world cup in Germany that starts on 16 June.

A key issue relating to the prison system in Brazil being raised after the raid is the leadership capacity of the PCC inside the prisons. This owes much to one simple and very popular gadget: mobile phones. Images of prisoners talking on mobile phones inside prisons have been repeatedly broadcast by the country's large news networks for several years. Neither politicians nor prison officials have been able to address the matter. State governments blame the federal government and the telephone companies; the federal government (as usual where public-security issues are concerned) and the telephone companies say that this is not their problem.

A major financial problem is that public security is a matter of state governments but the funds are not being distributed. As I have written before in openDemocracy, the ministry of justice's official data shows that only 5.5% (R$25 million) of the money previously allocated for the national fund for public security was actually spent in 2005 (yet the government spent R$270 million in organising the 2005 gun-law referendum and deducted R$200 million from the taxes to be paid by the TV networks for broadcasting the "yes" and "no" campaigns' advertisements).

A national concern

This is at last becoming a big issue in Brazil. A research project undertaken in February 2006 by CNT/Sensus found 78% of people expressing the view that public security in the country is deteriorating. They also said that the issue should be a high priority of the politicians and that every level of authority shares responsibility for the problems in this area.

Since the start of these tragic days in São Paulo, Brazil's national congress has started to debate a law that would oblige a defined proportion of public funds to be allocated to public security (as happens in the health and education sectors). However, experience in these areas suggests that a mere guarantee of funding without a designation of social targets or the detailed implementation of programmes only makes it easier to spend money badly.

In education, for example, a study recently published by São Paulo state's federation of commerce found that Brazil is spending today less than the international average at primary and secondary levels (though more than the international average at university level). In health, the money being spent should (in comparative terms) have brought infant mortality in Brazil to half its current level, and extend the people's life expectancy by five years.

The only good news about what happened in São Paulo is that it will ensure that public security will become one of the main issues of the presidential and congressional elections in October 2006. São Paulo state, after all, is the former fiefdom of presidential candidate and principal adversary of Lula in the race, Geraldo Alckmin. It is not long since Alckmin was boasting that his policies had reduced homicides by 43% at state level and 52% at city level between 1999 and 2005.

Now, these days of rage and violence will inevitably provide an opportunity to Lula'a Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party / PT) to criticise two party rivals that support Alckmin: Fernando Henrique's Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB) and its ally the Partido da Frente Liberal (PFL). Geraldo Alckmin renounced his position as governor of São Paulo state in order to run for president, delivering the position to his vice-governor, Claudio Lembo from the PFL, who is at the forefront of the tragic events.

At the same time, the PSDB and PFL will also try to blame the federal government in Brasilia for the crisis, on the grounds that it is responsible for delays in the construction of new federal prisons, for the lack of resources the affected region can spend, and for the absence of a coordinated strategic plan uniting the Brazilian federation against violence.

Meanwhile, Brazilian citizens themselves expect practical solutions from their bickering politicians – otherwise, and in light of the series of corruption scandals that marked Lula's first term in office, the reputation of politics and politicians will be even more discredited than it is already. It is unnecessary to emphasise how risky a collective disbelief in politics in a large and powerful country such as Brazil can be. If people become tired of a situation where public authorities at all levels refuse to build their legitimacy by working for the citizens' basic needs, the entire social and political system is corroded. After all, the idea of a powerful central authority legitimating itself on the basis that it can counteract the tendency of perpetual conflict among its subjects was invented in the 17th century, by none other than Thomas Hobbes.

Brazil: crime and social statistics

  • murder is the biggest cause of death of young people from 15-24 years old
  • Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo witness 42% of murders
  • from 1985-2005, the number of Brazilians murdered has grown by 237%
  • between 1991 and 2000, the number of young people between 15 and 24 years old grew by 47.3%
  • the chance of a Brazilian being murdered by a firearm is three-four times bigger than the global average
  • 75% of Brazil's municipalities have no cultural or leisure facilities; 96% have no cinemas; 86% have no theatre; 25% have no library
  • 15 million Brazilians are unable to write and read.


O Globo newspaper


Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE)



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