In 2015, more civilians were killed in Brazil than in Syria. In 2016, the South American nation recorded more homicides than any other country on the planet. Brazil is no outlier for the region: 43 of the most homicide-ridden cities in the world are to be found in Latin America. And this murder epidemic is nothing new. Warring cartels, armed guerrilla groups, and heavy-handed military crackdowns have all contributed to the 2.5 million violence-related deaths since 2000.
But amid the carnage is hope: over 1,000 violence prevention projects have been registered since 1990, and some of the most successful projects to curb homicide ever launched first took root in South America. Belo Horizonte, the capital of Brazil’s southeastern state of Minas Gerais, is home to Fica Vivo (Stay Alive), a pioneering program that slashed the mean number of homicides by 69% in one of the city’s most dangerous favelas.
Through its integration of criminal justice institutions and citizen security initiatives, Fica Vivo encapsulates the best of Latin America’s violence prevention efforts, even in the most violent of regions.
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The program started in mid-2002 as a university-led intervention based out of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) in response to soaring violent crime: the homicide rate rose from 17 per 100,000 in 1998 to almost 34 per 100,000 by 2002. Research, commissioned by then state governor, Aécio Neves, showed that violence was concentrated in six favelas. Researchers located where crime was happening, what kind of crime most affected residents and which specific people were most responsible for the killings.
With that data, they set one clear priority. “We focused on youth homicide,” said Beato, a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais who oversaw the program. “Not drugs, not domestic violence, but youth homicide.” The clarity of focus meant precise interventions, and more easily measurable results.
The program works on two axes in what is known as a “weed and seed” approach. “Weeding” entails the removal of prolific offenders through targeted policing and imprisonment. “Seeding” means preventing crime by investing in services and revitalising neighbourhoods.
First came the weeding. A criminal justice taskforce was established with representatives from the police, the judiciary, the local prosecutor’s office and UFMG researchers. The multidisciplinary team worked together to identify prolific offenders and exactly where they operated.
In one of Belo Horizonte’s most dangerous favelas, the criminal justice taskforce identified six separate gangs operating. Rather than crack down on every one, they gathered intelligence from the community to identify eight people responsible for a spate of recent homicides, and swooped in.
One of the most effective criminal justice responses which began in this phase was the establishment of GEPAR — a special team which was stationed full-time in the favelas, which got to know the communities it served. “One of the biggest complaints of the favelas is about the way the police behave,” said Beato, “but, at the same time, they need protection.” Building meaningful community-police relations — not having police only meet favela residents when they were conducting a raid — has since inspired programs across the continent.
Removing the small number of people responsible for most of the killings allowed the “seeding” to begin. A community group was established in the favela and provided with government funding to set-up activities to engage young people at risk of violent offending. One set up a graffiti and painting course. “I know one boy from that community who’s now studying art in Paris,” recalled Beato. “The results were impressive.”
Each activity is tailored to the expertise and interests of each favela’s residents. Paying the coordinators also boosts local income in some of Brazil’s poorest neighbourhoods.
The criminal justice taskforce and the community organisers work together to identify challenges and hold each other to account. Tensions can creep in, however. The police are forbidden from arresting people during the community activities. According to Beato, the police struggled with their inability to apprehend known criminals who attended the groups, while the community groups bristled at the thought their activities were vulnerable to police disruption. A third team was established to manage relations between the two groups.
In the five target communities, the project cut the homicide rate in half — a significantly higher reduction than in neighbouring communities where no intervention ran. The project, now running for 15 years, has reached 11,000 youths per year since 2005.
Fica Vivo has become one of Latin America’s great success stories, and a cornerstone for citizen security projects across the region. “We documented everything, all the nuts and bolts, so it was replicable almost everywhere,” Beato said. Fica Vivo, or projects modelled on it, now run in some 45 locations in Brazil.
Projects like Fica Vivo encapsulate the promise of Latin American work on violence prevention, argued Katherine Aguirre, director of research at the Igarapé Institute, Brazil’s foremost citizen security thinktank. “We may be the most violent region in the world,” she said, “but we also have some of the most promising interventions.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/Chris Jones)