Paradise Lost: Violence and Impunity in Brazil

Soccer Goals and Blood Baths

As reported in the publication InSight Crime, on June 30, 2013, a neighborhood soccer match in northeast Brazil dissolved into a nasty dispute when the referee, Otávio Jordão da Silva, ejected one of the players, Josenir Abreu. Tempers flared, resulting in Jordão da Silva eventually revealing a concealed knife and stabbing Abreu, killing him. Chaos ensued as several members of the community, spurred by rage and shouting obscenities, apprehended da Silva and pummeled him with rocks. The crowd followed the killer, eventually beating him to death. Afterwards, several of the assailants decided to quarter and behead da Silva’s body, mounting his head on a stake. [1] Despite the public exposure of the vicious crime, as of this date only one person, Luís Moraes Sousa, has been convicted. The police are still searching for other suspects. [2]

Whatever the argument may have been between da Silva and Abreu, it is unclear why da Silva thought it necessary to bring a knife to a modest neighborhood soccer match. The incident took place in the Northeastern state of Maranhão, a section of the country with the second lowest Human Development Index, after Alagoas, another Northeastern state. Maranhão also grapples with some of the highest indices of corruption in the country. Perhaps, then, it will be no surprise that this brutal confrontation occurred in the small rural town of Pio XII. [3]

This crime and the relative impunity afforded to the perpetrators are indicative of a sorry state of affairs for Brazil’s judicial system and exemplify its inability to deal with a rise in both violent and nonviolent crime.

 The Two Faces of Brazil’s Development

According to The Economist, as a nation develops and its economy strengthens, violence should be expected to decline. [4] More development correlates with less crime. This hypothesis may not apply to Brazil, a nation vexed with vast inequalities between regions, racial groups, and economic classes. Brazil continues to confront chronic issues of inequality and poverty, with the worst-off region being the historically Afro-Brazilian Northeast. In addition to its poverty and inequality, the Northeast is now facing an overwhelming crime spree. While nordestinos–citizens of the Northeast–would like to effectively confront this host of issues, there is little to aid them in this herculean task. The Brazilian Northeast can be seen as a lawless territory with a deeply flawed judicial system, ineffective police forces, and a growing appetite for crack cocaine. With the combination of these challenges, the region’s criminal activity perpetually beleaguers its civilians.

In the past few years, Brazil saw its coffers explode with windfall revenue. Spurred by a commodity boom, Brazil rode a wave of rising commodity prices and increased exports, especially to China. The bonanza effectively reduced some of the nation’s appalling rates of inequality. Since 2002, Brazil has seen more than 35 million of its citizens raised out of extreme poverty. Over the past decade, the Northeast boasted the second largest increase in number of middle-class citizens, as defined by the World Bank. However, this definition includes as middle-class those families making an astonishingly low $3,000 to $6,000 USD per year.

The Northeast also suffers the highest homicide rate in the country. The state of Alagoas has the dubious honor of leading the pack, reporting a murder rate of more than 66 homicides per 100,000 people. [5] Among the 12 most populous countries in the world, Brazil has, by far, the highest homicide rate at 27 per 100,000. The second highest, Mexico, has 22. [6] The question remains of how a country can be defined as middle-class and yet exhibit such high murder rates.

Many explanations have been proposed. Some point to a “culture of impunity” within Brazil, due especially to arduous legal processes. Convicting law breakers is all but possible, so most go unpunished regardless of the severity of their crimes. The most famous case of the decade in Brazil is the Mensalão–or big paycheck–case that involved numerous politicians, including multiple members of the current administration’s political party, Partido dos Trabalhadores (Worker’s Party: PT). Perhaps this case is the most obvious in discussing impunity within Brazil’s legal systems.


Photo Source: Pulsamerica

A Symptom of a Deeper Problem

The scandal, exposed by the popular Brazilian News agency Folha de São Paulo after receiving information from politician Roberto Jefferson, involves various Congressional deputies receiving a monthly “paycheck” (hence the name of the scandal) in return for voting favorably for different initiatives put forth by the PT. The fallout, however, has been fairly minimal compared to the alleged scale of the operation. Matthew Taylor, an assistant professor at the School of International Affairs at American University, highlights the inconsequential nature of the punishment. There were 841 defendants for the Mensalão trial, but “only 55 have been convicted and only 9 have officially gone to prison” in the nine years after the case. 12 of those convicted may be absolved of their crimes as well, following accusations of judicial malpractice that threaten to negate many of the rulings. The ex-aide of Congressman José Janene, João Cláudio Genu, may have a chance of leaving his jail cell scot-free, after being condemned to a four-year prison term. [7] “The Mensalão trial shows the [Brazilian] courts’ problems,” Professor Taylor acknowledged.

For many Brazilians, this case and the snail-like pace of judicial progress underline the country’s corrupt judicial system and also highlight how many of the wealthy can buy their immunity, even going so far as to void past rulings. Marcelo Costenaro Cavali, a federal judge working in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, downplayed the retrial at a Brazil Institute event on October 4, saying, “[all] that this recent appeal may change is the kind of sentence certain people may achieve.” More often, Judge Cavali conjectured that the possibility of significant change is unlikely, as a significant amount of the defendants, he said, are going to jail. Contrary to his assertions, the record reads that only nine of the 841 defendants actually have found themselves convicted and sentenced, a mere two percent of the total. The statement underlines the powerful nature that class, money, and power have within the Brazilian courts, while the case as a whole illustrates the culture of impunity that transcends regional boundaries, as all Brazilians fall victim to it. Still, Judge Cavali recognized that “the outdated system…should be changed. [Only] 5 percent of cases [before the supreme court of Brazil] have a final decision.”

Unequal City, Unequal Country

Violent acts like the one in Maranhão occur in other areas in Brazil as well, especially in the urban slum districts—known as the favelas. These squatter settlements are traditionally occupied by poorer Brazilians who do not have the funds or the means to inhabit a more desirable form of housing. On occasion, dangerous gangs or drug lords take control of these areas, far away from the eyes of the authorities. These malefactors formulate and enforce their laws within these poor communities. Over time, crime becomes localized, and different neighborhoods, or bairros, can accumulate very different records of poisonous activity.

Fortaleza, the second largest city in the Northeast, illustrates the unequal distribution of opportunity and how safety can be at a premium. Over the course of two months, the 10 richest neighborhoods reported seizures of 221 grams of illicit drugs, including crack, cocaine, and marijuana. For the 10 poorest districts, more than two kilos were reported. [8] Among crime indices, the only index that was higher in the richer areas (by a point) was stolen cars, perhaps due to the higher resale value of cars in richer areas.

Poorer areas around the world tend to be more dangerous, but the blatant discrepancy between bairros in Brazil highlights a problem deeper than simply a scarcity of resources. As stated earlier, many favelas are outside the reach of the government, allowing for a power vacuum that often can be expected to be filled by drug lords and gangsters. This may carry with it an uneasy peace, as long as the “law-maker” does not feel threatened. It can also lead to some sections of cities simply becoming too violent for the assertion of an effective state presence. [9]

One of the root causes of the stubbornly high crime rate in Brazil is its current crack epidemic. The country is now the number one consumer of crack in the world. [10] The Northeast holds about 40 percent of Brazil’s crack users, more than any other region in the country. [11] According to Brazil’s Mapa da Violência, an annual study made with the intention of charting crime within the country, Maceió, capital of the state of Alagoas, suffered a 184.7 percent increase in crime between 2000 and 2012, the sharpest spike in crime in the nation. [12] The alarming rise coincides with Brazil’s growth in crack usage, which also increased during the time that Brazil was experiencing its economic boom. [13] Brazil, now consumes up to 60 percent of the cocainen production of Bolivia, its neighboring country. [14]

 Looking Forward

Violence in Brazil is a difficult issue, as each of the aforementioned factors feed on each other. The absence of government activities leads to power vacuums, which are filled by even more dubious figures. As such, fear and violence continue as many such dubious figures turn to dealing drugs. The arrival of crack cocaine only worsens the situation. As we look forward to the upcoming World Cup, hosted by various Brazilian cities—some of which will be found in the northeast—it will be interesting to see how Brazil will confront these complex issues, and whether they can be dealt with before even more lives are lost.

Tarique Smith, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action

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[1] Terra. “MA: partida de futebol termina com jogador morto e árbitro esquartejado.” Terra, July 04, 2013. accessed October 18, 2013.,2b460b327aaaf310VgnVCM20000099cceb0aRCRD.html

[2] Ibid

[3] Alessi, Gil. “Municípios com pior renda per capita do país estão no Maranhão, segundo IDH das cidades.”UOL Notícias, July 29, 2013. accessed October 18, 2013.

[4] Bacon, Derek. “The curious case of the fall in crime.” The Economist, July 20, 1992. accessed October 18, 2013.

[5] Wiselfisz, Julio. “Homicídios e Juventude no Brasil.” Mapa de Violência 2013. accessed October 18, 2013.

[6] Ibid

[7] Olveira, Mariana, Fabiano Costa, and Rosanne D’Agostino. “Por 6 a 5, Supremo decide dar nova chance a 12 réus do mensalão.” O Globo. accessed October 18, 2013.

[8] Barros, Alan, and Hayanne Narlla. “Bairros pobres de Fortaleza sofrem com violência enquanto ricos estão ‘seguros’.” Tribuno do Ceará. . Bairros pobres de Fortaleza sofrem com violência enquanto ricos estão ‘seguros’. accessed October 18, 2013.

[9] Hogenboom, Melissa. “Murders follow maths law in Brazil, scientists say.” BBC News, August 13, 2013. accessed October 18, 2013.

[10] “Brasil é o maior consumidor de crack do mundo, revela estudo da Unifesp.” JORNAL Notícia, May 24, 2013. accessed October 18, 2013.

[11] D’Alama, Luna. “Nordeste concentra 40% do consumo de crack no Brasil, aponta estudo.” O Globo, September 06, 2012. accessed October 18, 2013.

[12] Monken, Hugo. “Traficantes impõem suas leis em favelas do Rio.” R7: Rio de Janeiro, December 04, 2010. accessed October 18, 2013.

[13] Velasco, Héctor. “Crack e pobreza alimentam crime em Maceió, capital do homicídio no Brasil.” Veja, April 08, 2012. accessed October 18, 2013.

[14] MercoPress. “Brazil excels in many fields but also in crack and cocaine consumption.” UNIAD: Unidade de Pesquisas em Álcool e Drogas. accessed October 18, 2013.

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