How the international arms trade kills women in Brazil
Firearms are the main cause of female homicides in Brazil. Europe’s arms exporters must take responsibility
Early one morning in late May, Gabriella Ferreira, a 41-year-old hairdresser, was awakened by the sound of gunfire. A police operation was underway a couple of kilometres away in Vila Cruzeiro, a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Five hours later, a rifle shot killed Gabriella inside her home.
According to the forensics report, the fatal shot was from a “high-kinetic energy (rifle), made from a long distance, and entered through the left scapular region (back), exiting through the clavicular region (front).” More than 20 people had been shot dead in Vila Cruzeiro over a 12-hour period.
But Gabriella’s death was not an isolated case. All too often, women are killed by stray bullets on the streets of Brazilian cities, or shot dead for political reasons. At home, they suffer gun-related violence.
Firearms are the main cause of female homicide in Brazil. They were used in the murder of more than half the women killed between 2000 and 2019, according to a recent study by Instituto Sou da Paz, an NGO working to reduce violence in the country. Black women in Brazil are particularly affected by gun violence: roughly 70% of the women shot dead in 2019 were Black.
The landmark Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which came into force in 2014 to regulate the international trade in conventional arms, recognises the intrinsic relationship between violence against women and the proliferation of weapons.
The treaty says that arms-exporting countries such as Belgium, France, Germany and the UK need to assess the risk of diversion to organised crime and whether the weapons might facilitate human rights abuses. The assessment should include the risk of the arms being used to commit or facilitate violence against women and children. In Brazil, these standards are not always met.
Caught in the middle
According to a 2014 United Nations study, Brazil had the most deaths caused by stray bullets in Latin America and the Caribbean region between 2009 and 2013. And women are disproportionately affected. According to the digital platform Fogo Cruzado, which collates data on shootings in Rio and Recife, 871 women were shot in the last six years in Rio de Janeiro alone. Nearly half of them died from their injuries.
Fogo Cruzado, which means crossfire in Portuguese, says that since 2016, when it began to compile data for Rio, 122 of the women shot in the city were at home, like Gabriella Ferreira. According to Maria Isabel Couto, Fogo Cruzado’s director of programmes, “The greater circulation of weapons in Brazil, added to the decrease in inspections in recent years, are elements that have made women more vulnerable.”
The different forms of gender-based violence against women are often related to firearms. This is the case inside the home as well. In São Paulo, Brazil’s industrial heartland, firearms featured in roughly one-fifth of all femicides in 2017, according to the office of the public prosecutor. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second most populous city, Fogo Cruzado said 45 femicides by firearms were reported in the last six years.
Women are typically attacked by spouses or ex-partners. This is what happened to Nathália da Silva, 29, last month. She was beaten, stabbed and shot inside a car said to be that of her ex-husband. Left unconscious on the street in the suburbs of Rio, she remains in hospital, in a serious condition.
All too often, the perpetrators are in legal possession of the weapons they use to attack women. Since Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in 2018, Brazil’s gun laws have been relaxed and gun ownership has soared. In 2021, Brazil’s federal police registered 204,300 new weapons, four times the number recorded in the year before Bolsonaro took office. Ordinary citizens acquired more than 75% of these newly registered weapons.
Death by police
Women in Brazil are often caught in the crossfire of political violence or when the security forces confront criminal groups.
The number of police killings in Brazil sometimes exceed the homicides recorded in countries such as Syria. Last year, 6,145 people were killed by police forces in Brazil.
Other forms of police violence against women are common, according to a study by the public defender’s office in Rio de Janeiro. The study provides evidence of a multitude of rights violations in the context of police and military operations. There were several cases of police-related sexual violence, such as harassment, illegal body searches and rape. In addition, the evidence presented indicates that police violence often occurs in the context of illegal home entry. Due to stigma and fear of reprisal, most violations go unreported.
Diversion of imported weapons
High-profile cases of politically motivated crimes against women have called the international arms trade into question. The 2018 murder of Rio councillor Marielle Franco with a German submachine gun drew attention to the complex relationship between political violence, organised crime and the diversion of weapons to non-state actors.
The murder weapon, a Heckler & Koch MP5, is used exclusively by special units of Brazil’s civil and military police, the federal police and some units of the armed forces. It took Franco’s murder for the arms manufacturer to suspend sales to the Brazilian security forces.
Even so, the diversion of firearms and ammunition to militias and drug traffickers remains a serious problem. In Rio de Janeiro, more than 700 weapons went missing from military police in 2017; some were later found to be in the hands of criminals.
In São Paulo, more than 33,000 weapons were diverted from the legal to the illegal market between 2011 and 2020, according to an Instituto Sou da Paz study. Of the diverted weapons, at least 8% were of foreign origin, including from ATT signatory countries such as Germany and Belgium. Brazil imports weapons and ammunition worth millions of dollars from ATT signatory countries. According to figures provided by Brazil’s Ministry of Industry, Foreign Trade and Services, since 2010, Brazil imported weapons and ammunition worth $9.3m from Germany, $18.1m from Belgium, $153.8m from France, and $7.8m from the UK*.
Franco’s assassination is not an isolated event. The murder of women who lead social movements, Indigenous and environmental groups, and landless workers is commonplace in Brazil and Latin America. The use of weapons, particularly of foreign origin, is a poorly investigated reality.
Given the high rates of arms diversion, police violence and the many ways in which weapons have been involved in gender-based violence, arms-exporting countries must urgently update their risk assessment mechanisms.
*Import values were extracted from the Comexstat database of the Brazilian Ministry of Industry, Foreign Trade and Services and refer to ISIC category 252 ("Manufacture of Weapons and Ammunition").
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