Brazil suffered 61,600 homicides in 2016, according to a new analysis of federal data released on Monday. And as violent crime continues to plague the country, Brazilian police forces are becoming increasingly lethal at an even faster rate.
Brazilian police killed 4,224 people in 2016, 26 percent more than in 2015, according to the 11th Annual Brazilian Yearbook of Public Security. (The numbers were first reported by Globo News.) The number of total homicides, by contrast, rose 3.8 percent.
By comparison, there were roughly 17,000 homicides in the United States in 2016. Police shot and killed at least 963 people, according to The Washington Post’s database on police shootings. The U.S. population outnumbers the Brazilian population by about 110 million people.
More than one-fifth of Brazil’s 2016 police killings occurred in the state of Rio de Janeiro, which hosted the Summer Olympics last year. Police in the state killed 925 people ― 43 percent more than in 2015, outpacing the state’s 24 percent jump in overall homicides.
By raw numbers, the various forces that police Rio state ― including civil, military and pacification police ― are Brazil’s deadliest, and will likely kill even more people in 2017. By the end of August, they had killed at least 712 people, according to The Wall Street Journal, putting them on pace for more than 1,000 killings by year’s end.
Police killings in the city of Rio de Janeiro, in particular, drew international attention before the Olympics and again last week, when an officer shot and killed a 67-year-old Spanish tourist in Rocinha, the largest of the city’s informal favela communities.
Two days later, Madonna found herself at the center of the issue when she posted a photo on Instagram documenting her visit to the Rio cultural center Casa Amarela in Morro da Providência favela. She’s posing between two rifle-bearing officers from the favela’s Police Pacification Unit, and she’s wearing military camouflage.
The photo, which Morro da Providência’s police also posted to their own account, drew immediate backlash for fairly obvious reasons: Madonna is a wealthy pop star who fancies herself a human rights advocate, and posing for that picture suggested she was either ignorant of how police terrorize Rio’s favela residents or was callous about it instead.
Madonna had perhaps too articulately expressed a basic attitude that prevails both inside and outside Brazil: an acknowledgement that the country feels as if it’s at war, but a willful blindness toward the vast majority of the victims.
Police officers came to Morro da Providência in 2010 as part of Rio’s favela pacification program, a public security-focused initiative the city had launched a year earlier after learning it would host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Pacification’s aim, ostensibly, was to reclaim favelas from the drug gangs that had controlled many of them while also delivering basic services the neglected neighborhoods had long lacked ― adequate sewage and sanitation, clean, accessible water, better health and education services, community centers and the like.
But Rio’s budget collapsed amid an economic crisis, and the social services never came. Meanwhile, as the two sporting mega-events approached, the number of police killings climbed ― going up 40 percent from 2013 to 2014, the year of the World Cup, and rising again in the year prior to the Olympics.
The number of people killed by police more than doubled from 2011 to 2016, suggesting that the only tangible and lasting legacy of the pacification program is violence.
Homicides take a particular toll on young, black Brazilians, both inside and outside favelas, where roughly 70 percent of residents are black or multiracial. Every 23 minutes, a black Brazilian child is the victim of homicide, according to a Senate report released last year; other reports show that black Brazilians overall are 23.5 percent more likely to die in homicides than members of other groups.
Police violence is no different: Last year, across Brazil, 76 percent of the victims of police killings were black, and 80 percent were between the ages of 12 and 29, according to the data released Monday. (Previous studies have shown similar rates in Rio state, specifically.)
Killings aren’t the only problem. Shootouts between rival drug gangs, or between drug gangs and police, often force favela schools and community centers to close. Pacification cops, meanwhile, have routinely subjected favela residents to extortion and harassment, including “near-constant stop-and-frisk searches,” The Globe and Mail reported. In 2015, five pacification officers in Morro da Providência were caught on camera placing their gun into the hands of an unarmed teenager they had just shot dead.
Both state and federal police have continued to crack down on neighborhoods like Rocinha and Morro da Providência thanks to increased violence and disputes between drug gangs that have maintained or retaken control. The Brazilian military occupied Rocinha in late September; there was reportedly a shootout in Morro da Providência the morning of Madonna’s visit.
Police have also suffered from the escalation of violence and public policy failures. In 2016, more than 400 officers were killed in the line of duty across Brazil ― up 17.5 percent from the prior year, according to the data released on Monday. The same data noted that 132 officers were killed in Rio state, up 34 percent from 2015, and Rio police have recorded further increases in 2017.
“They say you are all criminals. But we are lives.”
But favelas shoulder the brunt of the violence and the majority of the blame for it. More homicides and shootings have only further stigmatized favelas and their residents, who are often dismissed as criminals or criminal associates by police, lawmakers and other Brazilians. That only trivializes the constant threat of violence favela residents face, and allows many to treat police killings as a natural side-effect of the effort to combat crime.
“Bandido bom é bandido morto” ― “A good criminal is a dead criminal” ― Brazilian federal congressman André Moura said last week. Moura is not from Rio, but this is a common expression across Brazil, and in his home state of Sergipe, police killings rose 116 percent in 2016. (Homicides rose 11 percent, by comparison.) Moura himself is currently under investigation for three separate crimes, including assault.
But criminals, in this view, are rarely police officers who kill, and they’re usually not white, wealthy mayors-turned-congressmen, either. They aren’t members of the political and corporate class who have so thoroughly corrupted Brazil as to threaten the very future of its democracy. In Brazil, to be a “bandido” is to be a black person in a favela; to be a black person in a favela is to be a “bandido.”
“It’s going to get worse,” Gizele Martins, a journalist and activist who lives in Rio’s Maré favela, told me the morning after the Olympics ended last year. She worried that Rio officials had no plan and no money for rolling back pacification efforts or replacing them with a program that might successfully curb violence or deliver the actual services favela residents need.
Neither have they ended the “culture of impunity” that allowed police to kill in the numbers they do. To many, including the Rio congressman and right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, the answer to crime is to give police even more leeway to shoot and kill.
Martins worried, too, that the Brazilians who live outside favelas ― along with the millions of tourists who travel to Rio, many of them touring favelas to take photos of the colorful homes and captivating hillside views ― would continue to display ignorance about what favela residents endure at the hands of police and an indifferent state.
“People who live outside the favelas don’t understand the importance [of these fights] sometimes,” Martins said then. “They do not live these violations everyday. They say you are all criminals. But we are lives.”