It was late 1970’s in the beautiful and peaceful coastal town of Praia da Costa, Southeastern Brazil, and I was on my way back home from school. I couldn’t fail to notice frantic shouting coming from a mini shopping mall about 200 meters away from where I was standing. I suddenly realised what was unfolding right in front of me, a distressed man firing his gun innumerous times at someone. In my entire life, I honestly can’t remember running as fast as I did then. This vivid memory of violence has stayed with me up to today.
Brazil is one of the most violent societies in the world!
Violence runs through Brazil’s entire history. It has become deeply engrained in the psyche of the population. A society has evolved where fear is an accepted part of every day life.
In order to understand this evolution you have to look back through time and the origins of Brazil. A culture of violence can first be seen in the young colonial period of Brazil (1540-1822), when the Portuguese Crown used violence against the indigenous people taking over their lands and imposing their white European culture and later during the period of enslavement of African peoples. This was followed by the Old Republic (1889-1930), in which the colonels used force and violence against rural populations in order to maintain political centrality and territorial unity.
Sadly the trail doesn’t stop there. A culture of violence continued in Brazil during the military dictatorship (1964-1985) with the legitimisation of state violence through persecutions, end of individual freedom, political repression, torture, exile, etc.
The troubled past has created a Brazil that has the 9th highest homicide rate in the world. Recently, the WHO published data revealing that Brazil has five times the world average of homicides.
According to data from the UN agency, deaths in Brazil reached 31.1 people per 100,000 habitants, compared to worldwide rate of 6.4 homicides for every 100,000 people. In Africa the rate is 10 deaths per 100,000, compared to just 3.3 per 100,000 in Europe.
In 2020, Brazil had the highest number of violent deaths in the world, 70,200 deaths, 12% of the total worldwide, surpassing violence in India, Syria, Nigeria and Venezuela.
This incredible headline number hides the suffering of many social groups within Brazil that face violence on an incredible scale. According to the Small Arms Survey, Brazil has the third highest number of deaths of women in the world. In 2018, a woman was murdered every two hours in the country.
A staggering 71.5% of people murdered in Brazil are black or brown, which evidences the correlation between violent death and high levels of social, race and economic inequality.
Children are also victims of violence. Between 2010 and 2020, at least 103,149 children and adolescent aged up to 19 years old died in Brazil, victims of aggression, according to a survey released by SBP, the Brazilian Society of Pediatrics. 2,000 of them were under 4 years old.
The list of affected groups within society goes on and on. Probably the longest suffering group being the indigenous population of Brazil, who have faced violence from the very first day of colonial settlers landing on Brazil’s shores.
“In cities like Rio de Janeiro, gang violence, the excessive use of force by the State, a system of Justice corrupt criminality, the militarisation of certain areas and the social accumulation of violence – where violence generates more violence – is what marks the extremely high homicide rates”, according to Small Arms Survey.
We can’t deny the fact that violence in Brazil is chronic, a legacy that has become a systemic problem. One has to question the reasons for so much violence in one single country. But they are countless, complex and interconnected.
Overall, the country has a flawed education system, a health system in desperate need of investment, serious issues of social exclusion, extreme racism, inequality, corrupt institutions, a failed judiciary system unable to maintain a rigorous protocol of punishment for violent crimes and unscrupulous and corrupt governance.
It has ineffective drug-fighting policies, serious arms and human trafficking issues and high circulation of weapons. Firearms accounted to 71% of crimes committed against the lives of Brazilians. From 1980 to 2016, nearly one million Brazilians died by gunshot wounds, according to Atlas of Violence.
With the levels of violence seen annually, it comes as no surprise that Brazil has one of the largest prison populations in the world, where more than 40% of prisoners have not yet been put on trial.
Sadly, there’s no quick fix to the issue of violence in Brazil. Violence is simply the symptom of so many deep problems. It will likely take generations of committed Brazilians to heal the patient. The support of the populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, with his radical and divisive policies, suggests this generation will not be one to start the healing process.