To the desperation of Brazilian authorities, the World Football Cup is nigh. What was supposed to be the most expensive football tournament ever organized has turned into a public relations disaster, beleaguered by massive construction delays and security worries.
It is true that in many ways, the World Cup has shown the best and the worst about the Brazilian society and will be a crucial test for incumbent President Dilma Rousseff, who is seeking re-election in October. Although polls put her in first place, her support is eroding as the scandals surrounding the organization of the event multiply.
To make matters worse, foreign embassies have issued safety tips earlier this week, cautioning attending fans. The list advises tourists not to wear flashy jewelry on the streets or to use their smartphone in public places. Furthermore, tourists are strongly advised to hand over their belongings to muggers, as criminals in Brazil have no problems killing wannabe-Bravehearts. Behind these grim suggestions lies an even grimmer message: ‘don’t count on local law enforcement; they won’t be there to help you’.
What is clear though is that if the tournament proves to be a success, Rousseff will easily win re-election. However, that’s a big if, ultimately hinging on the government’s capacity to ensure the safety of the millions that will flock to the 12 Brazilian cities playing host to the event. Authorities insist that they are well up to the challenge, and have committed around 170,000 troops to guard the events. The number and the fact that the military will supply the majority of personnel are clues that violence is to be expected on the streets. What has gone wrong with Brazil and how can it be fixed?
Clearly, Something Is Rotten in Rio
If the past is any indication, there are many things wrong with the way Brazil uses its security forces. To begin with, several international watchdogs have documented some worrying trends in their reports. For instance, Amnesty International points out that 80% of Brazilians are afraid of being tortured by their own police force if taken into custody, the highest figure in the world. Moreover, 70% distrust the police altogether, a fact that highlights its dramatic loss of legitimacy in the eyes of Brazilians.
Sadly, despite the heavy-handed manner employed by the police, crime is still rampant. To get an idea of the extent of criminality in Brazil, imagine the city of Detroit or Baltimore stretched out across 3.3 million square miles. According to statistics, Brazil is the world’s 7th most violent country, with as many as 1.1 million people having been murdered in the past thirty years. Kidnappings, rapes, and gang violence are part of daily life, especially in the infamous favelas. This constant war has made police officers very trigger-happy, killing on average five people every day. And the World Cup has only aggravated frictions between the establishment and the local population: after several years of decline, crime is up in almost all major cities.
Nevertheless, it would be foolish to assume that the sporting event is the sole cause to blame for the rise in criminality. In reality, problems run much deeper and can be traced back to the policies used by the government to crackdown on organized crime, a policy that Rousseff has been reluctant to change despite its glaring faults.
In 2008, the government unveiled plans for a new police force meant to stem the rising drug-related violence in the notorious favelas. In a first phase, the military storming the slums with armored vehicles, roots out gangs and confiscates drugs and weapons. Afterwards, the Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) is deployed, acting like a tightly knit contingent that patrols the streets and prevents gangs from springing anew. This approach would have worked if the UPPs had not resorted to torture and murder, prompting residents to declare that they are ‘worse than gangs’
Moreover, the program is very limited in its objectives, as it has no components to reintegrate marginalized people back into society, nor does it offer long-term solutions. Against this backdrop, it shouldn’t be surprising that crime rates have only gone up and with them the fear of investors to commit to long-term dealings in Brazil.
Time for a Paradigm Shift
The main failure of the UPP program is that it does not take into account any prevention programs, such as community building. Next-door Panama would be a good model to follow. The small Central American country has become one of the safest countries in South America, with a homicide rate of 18 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants (below Brazil’s count of 25) mainly because of a new approach in fighting crime.
Instead of deploying UPP-type contingents, Panama’s National Police chose to implement a proximity police called ‘Unidad Preventiva Communitaria’. Under the command of police chief Julio Molto, the program seeks to re-integrate children in high-crime areas by providing communities with teaching tools aimed at keeping youngsters off the streets and away from gangs. Police officers are tasked with building trust-based relations with troubled communities by becoming actively involved in their day-to-day lives. To this end, they offer leisure activities and programs including sports and creative arts.
The grassroots method has led to a drop in the number of thefts and assaults, particularly in the Curundu and El Chorillo areas of Panama City, showing that a militarized approach to community violence is simply not enough.
Brazil’s lessons are that although crime does go down after a brutal crackdown, in the long run gangs tend to reappear, since the underlying social problems that pushed people to delinquent behaviors in the first place simply cannot be solved with guns. Foreign embassies were not the first to point out this problem, but it goes to show how deeply Brazil’s problems affect the country’s international reputation. Dilma Rousseff would be wise to push for a smarter approach in curbing violence and should find inspiration in Panama’s success story. Her re-election bid depends on it.