Justice Minister Sergio Moro says homicides dropped about 20% this year through June
By Luciana Magalhaes and Samantha Pearson
Sept. 10, 2019 9:28 am ET
BRASÍLIA—Homicides in Brazil have declined by a fifth this year after falling in 2018 at the fastest rate in at least a decade, reversing a violent trend that has haunted Latin America’s biggest nation and propelled a law-and-order politician to the presidency.
Brazilian Justice Minister Sergio Moro told The Wall Street Journal that murders dropped about 20% this year through June, compared with the same period a year earlier. His comments come as the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, a nongovernmental research group, on Tuesday released data showing that there were 57,341 murders last year, a 10% decline from 2017. It was the first year homicides fell in Brazil since 2015 and the sharpest yearly decline since 2007, when the organization began corroborating data state by state to produce a nationwide figure.
“Our expectation is that this trend continues and that’s what we’re working towards,” said Mr. Moro, who has spearheaded President Jair Bolsonaro ’s crime-fighting efforts since taking office in January. Brazil’s murder rate of 27.5 per 100,000 inhabitants remains high, but is now below that of Mexico.
Crime experts attribute the decline in large part to a truce in the bloody turf war between Brazil’s biggest drug gangs, violence that in 2017 helped generate 64,000 murders, the highest on record and the most for any country in the world. State government strategies to isolate and transfer imprisoned drug lords, who often run criminal enterprises from inside jail, have also had an impact. The federal police, meanwhile, has aggressively targeted money laundering by violent criminal gangs, weakening them, researchers say.
However, an alarming rise recently in police killings—which Mr. Bolsonaro has enthusiastically supported—provides reason for caution, they say. Police officers were responsible for 6,220 deaths last year, 20% more than 2017, according to FBSP data. In Rio de Janeiro, police carry out a quarter of all homicides, roughly equivalent to levels now seen in Venezuela.
Brazil’s overall murder rate, while lower than the 30.8 per 100,000 in 2017, is still over five times the global average, as measured by the U.N.
“This is a moment for Brazil to catch its breath,” said Renato Sérgio de Lima, head of FBSP. “It’s time for Brazil to reflect on what happened, on what is working, and to avoid what went wrong.”
The peak of Brazil’s homicide crisis in 2017 came just as the country was reeling from its largest-ever corruption investigation, adding to a sense of lawlessness that paved the way for the victory last year of Mr. Bolsonaro—a fiery ex-army captain who promised to restore order.
Mr. Bolsonaro picked as his justice minister Mr. Moro, a former judge who led the Car Wash corruption probe, while exasperated voters elected scores of former police officers and military personnel to Congress. Nostalgia for Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship grew. Confidence in democracy withered.
While murders were already falling in Brazil by the time Mr. Bolsonaro took office, his administration has showcased the even sharper declines this year as proof of success.
“We have seen a significant reduction in the main crime indicators during the Bolsonaro government,” said Mr. Moro.
He added that his ministry had worked with governors to better control the country’s prisons, home to the kingpins of Brazil’s illegal drug trade. “There is a clear correlation between disorder in the prison system, and the level of crime that occurs in the outside world,” said Mr. Moro.
Researchers, however, note that it is hard to determine in Brazil why murders are rising or falling. Only one in 10 are solved. That makes it hard to pinpoint motives and, therefore, the reasons why killings rise or fall.
“While the current administration has tried to claim ownership of the recent improvements in public security, there are other factors that explain the murder decline that have nothing to do with them,” said Robert Muggah, head of the Igarapé Institute, a policy group in Rio de Janeiro that studies crime.
First Capital Command and the Red Command, two criminal organizations in Brazil, engaged in open warfare in 2016 as they battled for control of cocaine trafficking routes from Colombia and Bolivia, leading to surging murders in several northern states in 2017. By 2018, those disputes had largely been settled. The bloodshed in 2017 also prompted state governments to divert more attention to organized crime and made the gangs themselves more weary of violence.
“When the gangs realized that war between them was hurting profits, they decided in states like Ceará to form a truce,” said Rafael Alcadipani, a public security researcher at Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation. Mr. Alcadipani said the gangs instead set fire to buses, garbage trucks, electricity pylons and other public works, but those attacks didn’t result in more slayings.
Brazilian states have also better integrated social programs with security policies, invested more in police intelligence work, and increased integration between civil and military police forces, said Mr. Muggah.
Rather than helping to improve public security, Mr. Bolsonaro’s approach—particularly his seemingly tacit approval of police violence—may actually be harming the country’s efforts to reduce murders, researchers say.
“If a cop ends up killing someone, so what…screw human rights!” said Mr. Bolsonaro in a video posted to Twitter just before he took office. He stands by the now-popular Brazilian saying: “A good criminal is a dead criminal.”
While supporters believe the tactic pays off, FBSP data shows otherwise. In many states where police account for a larger percentage of homicides, including Rio de Janeiro, total murders either increased from last year or fell by a smaller percentage than the national average.
More police killings tend to reduce a community’s trust in security forces, leaving locals less willing to collaborate with authorities in investigations.
“Rio is an example not to be copied: many police operations, a lot of death and little intelligence,” said Silvia Ramos, a social scientist at the University of Candido Mendes in Rio. “The result is that drug trafficking gangs and militia groups continue to dominate this state.”