Police, Military Fight Crime Wave Plaguing Brazil’s Federal District

By Dialogo
December 05, 2011

BRASÍLIA — Streets where you don’t walk at night. Places where you don’t park your car. Whole areas where security forces are invisible.
Throughout Brazil’s carefully planned capital city, families no longer feel safe in their own homes, and electric fences and other expensive anti-crime technologies have been sprouting up in suburban neighborhoods.
That’s because criminal activity traditionally associated with Brazil’s megacities — such as homicides, kidnappings, robberies, public assaults and drug trafficking — has in recent years spread from major metropolitan areas to smaller cities hundreds of kilometers from the coast.
Between 1998 and 2008, the number of homicides in Brazil jumped from 41,950 to 50,113, representing an increase of 17.8 percent, according to the Violence Map 2011: Youth of Brazil. The map was produced by the Sangari Institute, a São Paulo-based think tank, in partnership with the Ministry of Justice.

Drugs moving inland

“Up until the 1990s, violence in Brazil was concentrated in heavily populated places like São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro or Pernambuco,” said Julio Jacobo Waiselfisz, who’s served as research director at the Sangari Institute since 1980. “But then, cities in the interior began offering fiscal incentives to lure investment and low-wage workers attracted by the relative economic stability. Over time, they became perfect targets for the drug market and a rise in crime.”
In 1999, then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and José Gregori, then-minister of human rights, created the National Plan for Public Security [Plano Nacional de Segurança Pública], known today as the National Citizenship Security Plan [Plano de Segurança Nacional con Cidadania], or Pronasci.
“One of the main objectives of this plan is to effectively combat the two problems of organized crime and drug trafficking, which are frequently inseparable,” stated the 2000 decree that established Pronasci. “Criminal organizations have economic power and the capacity of corrupting society, constituting a serious threat to our democratic institutions.”
Under Pronasci, authorities have implemented various new strategies such as Operation Zero Tolerance and War on Crack.

Violence in the Federal District

The Federal District encompasses 24 administrative regions including Brasília itself. Arthur Maranhão Costa, coordinator of the University of Brasília’s Center for Studies on Violence and Security, said “these regions are better understood as neighborhoods since they don’t have elected mayors and vote for the district’s governor.”
Costa has written extensively about violence in the Federal District, and in 2004 published a study on police reforms in Rio de Janeiro and New York.

These so-called “satellite cities” have very high homicide rates, but those rates haven’t varied much in the past two decades. What has drastically changed for the worse is the region’s outlying vicinity; today the Federal District ranks sixth in homicides among Brazil’s states, according to the Violence Map.
Sandro Avelar, the Federal District’s new secretary of public security, said that fighting drug trafficking is his top priority, partly because an increase in the local supply of crack has caused crime to skyrocket.

Burning drugs in Brasília

In late September, Avelar supervised the biggest drug incineration in Brasília’s history. Nearly three tons of crack, cocaine, marijuana, ecstacy, LSD and hashish confiscated by police in the previous 12 months went up in smoke. The bonfire was part of Drug Use Prevention Week.
In October, Avelar coordinated a forum on fighting crack for Brazil’s security forces as well as the ministries of social development, education, sports, health and justice.
Agnelo Queiroz, governor of the Federal District, said in a press release that since September — with the launch of Operation Zero Tolerance — “police and military forces have apprehended more than 1,000 people in three administrative regions: Brasília, Ceilandia and Taguatinga. Since Queiroz took office just over a year ago, 600 military police have been hired, with a total of 1,300 new officers expected to be on the streets by this December.
In addition, the Operational Air Force Battalion has obtained two new helicopters, while six police buses have been equipped with Mobile Commando technology. Queiroz said the Federal District has invested more than R$40 million (about $22 million) in police and firefighting operations.

Brazil leads the world in murders

Despite government measures being taken to crack down on crime and guarantee public safety, Brazil remains one of the most violent countries in Latin America. In 2011, according to the UNODC study, Brazil — population 195 million — ranked first worldwide in total number of homicides (43,909), edging out even India, which last year reported 40,752 murders despite its vastly larger population of more than one billion.
One reason for this is Brazil’s proximity to drug-producing countries like Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. Another is the culture of violence which the region has endured for more than half a century.
“It is not the weapon that kills, but the man — and we need to end this culture of extermination now that we have the chance,” said Sangari’s Weiselfeiz. “The best tools are education programs directed at teenagers and young adults, who are the ones most affected by violence.”