Homicide Rates Tied to Poverty in Brazil

This interview is the result of a partnership between Comunidad Segura and the Brazilian Public Security Forum (Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública)

INTERVIEW / Ignácio Cano

Cano_peq.jpgMid-sized cities in the interior of Brazil show the highest rates of youth mortality and the Northeast has the highest indices for lethal violence, according to the "Violence Map 2011 - The Youth of Brazil," released by Instituto Sangari.

According to the study, homicide is the leading cause of death for youth between 15 and 24. In the last decade, this type of crime accounted for almost 40 percent of deaths among young people in Brazil, while in the adult population, the index was close to 2 percent.

The Adolescent Homicide Index, produced in 2010 by the Observatorio de Favelas in partnership with the Laboratory for Analysis of Violence at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), the Presidential Human Rights Secretariat, and UNICEF, confirms that data.

In this interview with Comunidade Segura, sociologist Ignacio Cano, at UERJ's Laboratory for Analysis of Violence, interprets the study's results. He warns that the risk of mortality among adolescents is higher than that of the general population and explains that poverty and low quality of education are associated with lethal violence. According to Cano, violence must be tackled by social inclusion and policies geared at arms control and homicide reduction.

Cano also discusses the deployment of Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) in Rio and the production and dissemination of public security data in Brazil.

According to the Violence Map 2011, while the overall mortality rate of the population fell, the rate of mortality among youth rose, driven by homicide. Are we facing genocide of young people?

Genocide is not the right word, but we are certainly facing a serious crisis that has grave consequences for youth and society from demographic, economic and political perspectives. Since people are dying young, their deaths affect the overall population structure, leaving families with incomes, and women without partners. It is a tragedy that we end up getting used to even though we should not. We must change public perceptions to understand that this is not a normal situation, and that it cannot continue.

How do you explain the increased number of youth homicides in recent years?

In fact, mortality is falling among other groups, so the increase is more relative than absolute. While in the other groups violence is decreasing, among young people it remains high. We did a survey on adolescent mortality and saw exactly that: in relative terms, adolescent risk is rising in proportion to the population.

According to the map, in some states, more than half of all deaths among young people were caused by homicide, while in others the rate is much lower. For example, in Alagoas, there are 125 homicides per 100,000 young people and in São Paulo, that rate falls to 25 per 100,000. To what do you attribute this difference?

These recent developments in Brazil have clearly been exacerbated by the Northeast, mainly Bahia and Alagoas, where the capitals Salvador and Maceio, respectively, are ranked highest in terms of violence. Recife and Vitoria remain high as well, while the capitals of the Southeast are witnessing a decrease in violence. São Paulo has improved greatly since 2001. Rio's rates of violencefell slightly, and continue to fall.

Clearly, the most urbanized and industrialized regions are improving while the Northeast is getting worse. Demographically, this is good for Brazil, because since most of the population is in the Southeast, it means that the overall rates fell. It is also positive in the sense that the more urbanized areas with strong public policies ended up doing slightly better. But the case is very serious in the Northeast, as well in the interior.

How do you explain high rates of violence in the interior?

A phenomenon that we observed in both the Map of Violence and Homicide Index for Adolescents is that the middle-size municipalities in the interior are facing serious problems, often more serious than capital cities. Municipalities in the interior have not improved the way metropolises have; they have seen less aggressive public policies and weaker economic growth.

We did a study last year on the factors that affect the Index of Homicides of Adolescents in each county and discovered that the three most powerful factors are population size; poverty (specifically the average income of the poorest); and the quality of education.


In addition to being the group that is most often seriously injured by gun violence, is it true that youth are also the largest group of violence perpetrators?

Data on those who kill is much more difficult to compile than that of who dies. We have lots of information on victims and little about the perpetrators, because only a fraction of murders are prosecuted. Over 92% of homicides in Rio, for example, do not result in punishment for the guilty. It is a very selective sample and we do not know if it's true, but all indications point to the fact that young people are the biggest protagonists of violence, both as perpetrators and as victims.

What is lacking in public security policies to reduce these rates?

Preventive policies are the same as always: arms control, in which Brazil has advanced considerably, but still has a ways to go; improve the quality of education; raise the income of the poorest sectors of the population and improve social integration; improving police; and improve public security policy, prioritizing homicides.

Historically, public policy has paid more attention to crimes against property, kidnapping and others. Policies are needed to reduce mortality, with specific targets, and to improve crime investigation. In general we do not have a public policy that prioritizes reducing and solving homicides, even though it affects the whole population. The only existing policies in this direction are the Pacto pela Vida(Covenant for Life), in Pernambuco, Fica Vivo(Stay Alive), in Minas Gerais, and now, in Rio, to some extent, the UPP.

Do you believe the UPP can lead to reduced youth homicide rates?

Sure, but in very specific areas. The impact is local. What we expect is that in the medium term, as the UPPs are expanding, generating a systemic effect, changing the police culture toward confrontation and also the culture of crime itself, which is extremely violent in Rio, due to territory disputes.

With the occupation by the police, there is no dispute over territory and violence rates fall. Drug trafficking will function as it does in most countries of the world—without AR-15s and without controlling entire communities, thus drastically reducing the level of violence associated with this crime.

How do you see public security in Rio today, in view of the approaching World Cup and the Olympics?

We live in a time of expectation. Events in the next three to five years will determine the future of the city and state. It is a historic opportunity that we cannot let pass us by, but we need to continue making progress in reducing homicides, the expansion of UPPs, in improving police salaries, strengthening the internal affairs division (corregedorias),and the achieving our goals.

The fact that they incorporated the records of deaths resulting from police action, called “autos de resistência” is already a step in the right direction, but we need more than that, we need targets for reducing police lethality. And, of course, we must advance the social inclusion of the poorest and fight against corruption. Over the next five years we'll see whether Rio is a city with reasonable levels of violence or if it will continue to be famous for violence, in addition to its natural beauty.

Returning to the Map of Violence, another important fact is that two out of every three young people killed are black. Why?

The survey last year on the Homicide Index for Adolescents (IHA) showed that the places where there is more risk for teens is where the imbalance between sexes, races and means is greater(i.e. men's risk is much higher than the women, blacks far more than whites and the risk of firearms is much greater risks than others).

There is a concentration of homicides and profiles of victims in some places. The risk is much greater in areas where the population is predominantly black, like the favelas, where the main profile of the victims is: young, male, black, low education level. This profile is concentrated in precisely those areas where violence is very intense.

What is the Adolescent Homicide Index (HAI) and what is its significance?

It is an index that attempts to present a graphic representation of adolescent homicide: for every thousand young people who reach the age of 12, how many will be murdered before age 19?The index gives a longitudinal view, helping to estimate the number of deaths over time. It is another way of accounting for the murder of adolescents and highlights the seriousness of the problem, which often gets ignored.

Teenagers are a very important group, because everybody agrees that children have to be protected. The adults commit crimes and are punished. Often people do not want to spend money on adults. The teenager is in an intermediate position— he does not elicit as much sympathy and support as a child, but he is not yet an adult. The IHA is also a way to stimulate public policies that should be continued for young people.

The data coincide with the IHA's Map of Violence?

Basically yes.

What other indices exist to assess violence?

The homicide rate, which is a classic levy; homicide rates by age groups, violent death rates, which the Map of Violence usually uses, and violent crime rates, which also includes homicides, robberies and other violent crimes.

The data come from the Department of Public Security. It is also very important to increase research on victimization, because, with the exception of homicide and auto theft, other crimes are often underreported.

How strong is production of data on violence in Brazil?

It's improving but is still well short of what is necessary. We need more, better quality, and more transparent data. The data also are slow to come out, are still difficult to access, and there is risk of negative repercussions or denials from the government. The data ends up being a political tool for facilitating, negotiating, bargaining. This must stop. A democratic country cannot use the data as a mechanism of trade and political negotiations. The data is paid for by taxes paid by the population and therefore it belongs to the public.

Is there a model Brazil should follow?

In some states there is a specific law requiring data disclosure, but there is a general law in Brazil that requires all unclassified data to be published on the Internet. The Health Department provides a good model. Data are slow to come out, but when they do, they're extensive. Today we have all the mortality data from 1999 to 2008 on the Internet. It's a model we want for public security.

Read Further (In Portuguese):

Mapa da Violência 2011

Índice de Homicídios de Adolescentes (IHA) 2010 (arquivo PDF)

Consulta ao IHA no site do Programa de redução da Violência Letal contra Adolescentes

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