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Brazil - Crime

The government is largely absent from the favelas [slums] of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and other major cities, whose millions of residents are often caught between criminal gangs and corrupt civil and military (uniformed) police. In urban areas, especially the largest, violence has become commonplace, with frequent thefts, robberies, break-ins, assaults, and kidnappings. The police themselves are sometimes involved in criminal activities. In Rio de Janeiro, the government has little control over the favelas, which are dominated by gangs that control informal gambling (a numbers game called jogo do bicho ) and drug trafficking as well as influence local politics.

In Rio, where violence has become endemic, a gang war in Rocinha, a favela notorious for crime and drugs, culminated with bloodshed and revealed the depth of criminal druglord control over the favelas. The police reacted by launching a highly publicized incursion into Rocinha. In the countryside, the Landless Movement (MST) illegally occupies land, causing confrontations with landowners and the government. In April 2004 the MST accelerated its occupations throughout Brazil, worsening an already tense situation in rural areas.

Crime throughout Brazil (especially Rio de Janeiro) has reached very high levels. The Brazilian police and the Brazilian press report that the rate of crime continues to rise, especially in the major urban centers - though it is also spreading in rural areas. Brazil's murder rate is more than four times higher than that of the United States. Rates for other crimes are similarly high. The majority of crimes are not solved. Street crime remains a problem for visitors and local residents alike, especially in the evenings and late at night. Foreign tourists are often targets of crime and Americans are not exempt. This targeting occurs in all tourist areas but is especially problematic in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Recife.

In 2002, there were 21.7 firearms deaths for each 100,000 people in Brazil, compared to 10.7 in the United States. In October 2003, the Brazilian Federal Government enacted a new set of laws to limit the importation of firearms, making it illegal to own unregistered guns or to carry guns on the street, and the penalties for the violation of gun control laws were increased. In 2005, Brazil’s leading political parties and advocacy groups promoted a national referendum to ban commerce in arms and ammunition altogether. Despite support from all sides of the political spectrum, the referendum was defeated by a hastily organized pro-gun coalition that argued gun control would only deny guns to law-abiding citizens. Despite that failure of the referendum, Brazilian gun control legislation is strong, and some analysts attribute the drop in homicide deaths to the 2003 legislation.

In the state of Sao Paulo, firearms confiscations by the police increased from 6,539 in the fist quarter of 1996 to 11,670 in the second quarter of 1999. This peak coincided with the beginning of the great Sao Paulo homicide decline. Firearms confiscations remained high through 2004 and then settled back to their previous level. Sao Paulo authorities believe that the decline in firearms confiscations after 2004 was due to new national legislation that increased the penalties for carrying firearms, such that fewer persons risked carrying them on the street.

The federal government or its agents do not commit politically motivated killings, but unlawful killings by state police occur. In some cases police employed indiscriminate force. In a few cases, civilians died during large-scale police operations. Credible reports indicated that state police officials continued to be involved in revenge killings and intimidation of witnesses who testified against police.

On 08 December 2008, Human Rights Watch (HWR) published a report entitled "Brazil: Lethal Force," which focused on police violence in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo. HWR's Director for the Americas Jose Miguel Vivanco and Associate Director Daniel Wilkenson, who announced the release of the report in Rio de Janeiro, expressed specific concern over alleged resisting-arrest killings. Vivanco and Wilkenson said the 1,137 police killings documented as resisting arrest in Rio state in 2008 constituted a "dramatic" figure. They claimed forensic evidence and case studies compiled over the previous four years led them to conclude many such incidents were extrajudicial killings.

Local human rights groups also strongly criticize the levels of force exercised by conventional police forces, as well as wide-spread corruption. According to Global Justice, one of the most prestigious human rights groups in Rio de Janeiro, military police do not make a distinction between criminals and ordinary favela residents, part of the cause for the large number of police-related killings. Furthermore, corrupt police fueled violence in the favelas, including incidents where police even rented out arms, ammunition, and vehicles to rival drug factions engaged in de facto wars for control of favela territory and narcotics markets.

In Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, so-called militia groups, composed of off-duty and former law enforcement officers, often took policing into their own hands. Many militia groups intimidated residents and conducted illegal activities such as extorting protection money and providing pirated utility services. Human rights observers believed that such militia groups controlled up to a third of Rio’s favelas.

Street robberies continue at a high rate even in affluent neighborhoods. Cell phones and electronic items (personal laptop computers, iPads, and electronic tablets) are targets. One tactic of organized gangs is to target individuals observed withdrawing money from ATMs or exiting banks after making a withdraw. These gangs frequently operate in teams and are armed. Using ATMs located in discreet locations, especially those in major tourist hotels, will reduce the odds of being targeted for this type of crime.

Another trend for robbery is to target individuals in vehicles stopped at stoplights, especially at night. Areas especially at risk for this type of crime include the Zona Norte (North Zone) and the Centro (downtown) area of Rio, but this can happen anywhere in Rio de Janeiro. If you find yourself in a carjacking situation, you should surrender your vehicle and offer no resistance. Attempt to not be taken away by the assailant; odds are you will be assaulted and/or killed. Never give rides to a hitchhiker or accept rides by unknown persons. Women have been assaulted accepting rides by men purporting to be helpful.

“Express kidnappings,” where victims are abducted and forced to withdraw money from ATMs, occur often enough to warrant caution. At airports, hotel lobbies, bus stations and other public places there is much pick-pocketing, and the theft of carry-on luggage, briefcases, and laptop computers is common (including some reports of thefts on internal flights). Travelers should "dress down" when outside and avoid carrying valuables or wearing jewelry or expensive watches. "Good Samaritan" scams are common. If a tourist looks lost or seems to be having trouble communicating, they may be victimized by a seemingly innocent and helpful bystander.

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Page last modified: 22-06-2013 22:03:45 ZULU