Brazil’s Image Takes a Beating

In recent weeks Brazil has been making international headlines for all the wrong reasons. Stories about the fast-growing Brazilian middle class and the country’s preparations for hosting World Cup 2014 are being overshadowed by stories about deadly gang violence, government corruption, electricity blackouts, a hellish tax system, and a hostile business climate.

The violence in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, has turned into a virtual war pitting law-enforcement authorities against the most powerful Brazilian street gang, in a showdown similar to the bloodbath that occurred in 2006. So far this year, close to 100 police officers have been killed in São Paulo, compared with 56 in 2011. The city experienced 144 murders in September and 176 in October. By comparison, there were 82 murders in October 2011.

All told, São Paulo had 33 percent more homicides in the first ten months of 2012 than in the first ten months of 2011. On November 12, Guardian correspondent Jonathan Watts reported that there had been no fewer than 140 murders over the previous fortnight, leading to “early school closures, a change of municipal bus routes, and street demonstrations.” More recently, on November 21, the police chief for the state of São Paulo (which includes the São Paulo metropolitan area) resigned from office.

To be sure, São Paulo city is a much safer place today than it was in the late 1990s: Its total murder rate fell by 71 percent between 1999 and 2011. Brazil’s second-largest city, Rio de Janeiro, has also enjoyed a dramatic decline in violence, and its Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) program, launched in 2008, has produced stunning results: The Brazilian Forum for Public Security estimates that Rio slums with a UPP presence have seen their combined murder rate plummet by 80 percent.

Yet both cities (especially Rio) remain highly dangerous by international standards. As the Financial Times reported last December, Pedro Henrique de Cristo, founder of the United City initiative, has calculated that roughly one-sixth of all Rio residents

live under the drug warlords outside the control of the government. Their average income is about one-third of that of regular neighborhoods, murder rates are nearly twice as high, and teenage pregnancies are five times higher.

Other parts of Brazil are even more dangerous. According to a study by the Sangari Institute, its national homicide rate increased by 124 percent between 1980 and 2010, rising from 11.7 per 100,000 to 26.2 per 100,000. (The World Health Organization designates 10 per 100,000 as the threshold for an “epidemic” level of violence.) The total number of murders in 2010 was close to 50,000. As the study grimly observed, Brazil “has managed to exterminate more of its own citizens than the number of people who have died in recent armed conflicts around the world.”

The ongoing violence in São Paulo has spread to areas that were once relatively safe, such as the coastal state of Santa Catarina and its capital city, Florianópolis, which is known for its beautiful beaches and energetic nightlife. Earlier this month, reports MercoPress, “at least 17 buses were torched and six police stations were attacked with heavy gunfire” in Florianópolis. Meanwhile, the coastal state of Alagoas, in northeastern Brazil, now has the country’s highest murder rate, at 74.5 per 100,000.

As if Brazil needed any more attention on its crime problem, a famous Brazilian soccer star, Bruno Fernandes, is being tried for the murder of his former girlfriend. Not surprisingly, the case has become a media spectacle, with some calling it Brazil’s equivalent of the O.J. Simpson trial.

The Fernandes trial -- which has been postponed until March -- began shortly after the conclusion of a spectacular corruption trial involving former Brazilian presidential aide José Dirceu, who served as President Lula da Silva’s chief of staff from 2003 to 2005. (Lula left office in January 2011, after two terms.) On November 12, Dirceu was sentenced to nearly eleven years in prison for his role in a congressional bribery scandal that has now led to 25 convictions.