• Opinion
  • March 25, 2019
  • 14 minutes
  • 1

Brazil is tackling high murder rates with a new wave of crime programs

Opinion: Brazilians don't need to look to New York or Miami for successful strategies

This piece was written by Robert Muggah and Renata Giannini. For more like this, see our violence prevention newsfeed.


Brazil has an uneasy co-existence with homicide. At least 1,060,000 Brazilians have been murdered since 2000. And while murder rates have climbed over the past three decades, the country has yet to adopt a national strategy to reduce them.

The newly installed Minister of Justice and Public Security, Sergio Moro, has indicated that reducing lethal violence is a key issue to tackle, though his priority is fighting corruption and organised crime. And while previous administrations attempted to set up a national plan to reduce murder as recently as 2017, these initiatives sputtered out before generating lasting impact.

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While Brazil still lacks a federal agenda to prevent and reduce homicidal violence, there are examples of subnational efforts to tackle the problem. This is not surprising since constitutionally, policing powers are a state responsibility.

A host of innovative violent crime measures have sprung up in a number of states — including Espírito Santo, Minas Gerais, Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Scholars have started evaluating the outcomes and impacts of these and other programs. And while not every intervention has been successful, they offer hints into what works and what does not.


Source: Datasus


Sources: ISP and Secretarias de Segurança Pública in PE, MG, SP, ES and PB.

*Minas Gerais and São Paulo data refer to intentional homicide only.

One of the more impressive homicide reduction strategies was rolled out in the state of Sao Paulo starting in the late 1990s. The state witnessed a steady drop in violent crime with murder rates declining from 33.1 per 100,000 in 2001 to 6.4 per 100,000 in 2018.

Metropolitan Sao Paulo witnessed even more dramatic reductions in murder from 49.2 per 100,000 in 2001 to just 5.5 per 100,000 today, making it one of the safest large cities in the country.

Researchers attribute these declines to a combination of structural changes (declining youth population and falling unemployment) and police reform, including real-time crime mapping, improved training and strengthened coordination between the civil and military police forces. There are also indications that the dominance of the largest drug faction in Brazil, the Primeiro Comando da Capital, created a “pax mafiosa”, which also may have contributed to lower levels of collective violence.

Another Sao Paulo-based program that generated impressive results was undertaken in Diadema in 2000. The program was innovative for its time, involving a series of educational programs, youth-based activities and firearm and alcohol controls. For example, municipal authorities there regulated alcohol sales at night (restricting sales after 11pm), monitored alcohol vendors, installed public lighting and security cameras, and introduced changes in public safety management procedures.

By 2002, the city’s homicide rate reportedly declined by 44% and assaults against women also dropped by 56%. Key to the intervention’s apparent success was public engagement — over 80% of the community were in favour — alcohol retailer education, steady enforcement, and administrative penalties to ensure compliance.

Meanwhile, the state of Pernambuco has experienced episodic spasms of homicidal violence. State authorities there introduced the Pacto Pelo Vida program in 2007 with the explicit goal of reducing lethal violence, strengthening police performance, bolstering prevention measures and cultivating norms of respect for human rights.

Brazilians don’t need to look to New York or Miami for successful examples

The program was conceived on the basis of a far-reaching dialogue between government, private sector and non-governmental organisations, including university-based programs. Importantly, Pacto Pela Vida was strongly backed by a widely respected governor of Pernambuco, the late Eduardo Campos, who served as a steadfast champion of the initiative.

The initial results of the program were impressive. Between 2007 and 2015, homicides dropped by 33%. But the program started losing its way shortly after the unexpected death of Eduardo Campos in mid-2014. By 2017, homicides shot-up to the highest levels in 14 years — some 5,427 according to public authorities. Indeed, murders surged by 58% between 2015 and 2017.

By the end of 2018, homicides had fallen by 23% in comparison to the previous year. Decreases were concentrated in a few cities, including the capital Recife, and others in the interior, including Caruaru. The femicide rate remained the same, however, suggesting the need for further investments.

Another innovative homicide reduction program is Fico Vivo, launched in Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais. Fico Vivo first emerged in 2002-2003 in the wake of a series of successful pilot projects. The program included focused deterrence measures, and it was scaled-up in 2004 after receiving strong support from state and metropolitan authorities. On the basis of a carefully designed strategy developed in partnership with community members, the program employed a combination of community policing, community outreach and targeted social programs focused on at-risk youth to reduce gang and criminal activity.

The Fico Vivo program is widely considered to be one of Brazil’s most successful violence reduction efforts. Evaluations in 2008 and 2010 detected a 69% drop in homicidal violence in areas benefiting from the intervention. Partly because the program scaled too quickly and lost focus, homicides started creeping back up, before declining again in 2015. Indeed, data from 2018 indicates a further 25% decrease in homicide in areas where the intervention was undertaken since 2016.

According to evaluators, successes can be attributed to consistent municipal leadership, data-driven policing, a degree of flexibility to adjust program elements, micro-level deployments to high crime-areas, high levels community participation and preventive programs in schools.

Another youth violence prevention initiative — Estado Presente — was launched by state authorities in Espirito Santo in 2014. With support from outside partners, including the Inter-American Development Bank, the ambitious intervention aimed to reduce a range of crime rates in 78 municipalities. The targeted areas accounted for an estimated 75% of all homicides involving young people aged 15-29.

The key priorities of the program were to increase the effectiveness of the military and civil police to attend to crimes, reduce violent crime rates among 15-24 year olds, and drop recidivism of young people in contact with the law. The early results demonstrated a dramatic reduction in homicidal violence, though levels rose rapidly in 2017. Recent data in 2018, indicate that homicides fell again, by roughly 20%.

Likewise, the Paraiba Peace Program was created in 2011 with a focus on citizen-led approaches to public security. The intervention included a new data-driven crime mapping system (Núcleo de Análise Criminal e Estatística — Nace) in order to monitor key metrics of security in designated areas, including homicide.

In Brazil, the most effective interventions had a strong people dimension

A key objective was to ensure that both military and civil police shared responsibility over crime, and had an incentive to collaborate to prevent and reduce it over the medium term. The program also mobilised a “reward system” to compensate police units that met specific targets. The program appears to have generated results: Paraiba has experienced a steady decline in homicide over the past eight years. Between 2015 and 2018, homicidal violence fell by over 18%.

Finally, two violence reduction programs in Rio de Janeiro are credited with generating positive results between 2009-2015. The first, a “system of targets”, was a results-oriented management system to reduce specific types of lethal and non-lethal crime in designated territorial areas. It encouraged cooperation between the military and civil police, in some cases for the first time. The second was the controversial pacification police units (UPP) program that mobilised “proximity policing” in informal and low-income areas of metropolitan Rio de Janeiro. The state’s military police enlisted 9,000 newly recruited officers, deploying them to 38 areas reaching over 1.5 million people.

Between 2009 and 2015, homicide rates dropped by 66% in Rio de Janeiro, though started creeping back up in 2016 in the wake of political scandal, economic crisis and collapsing leadership. The system of targets was crippled by the ending of payments in 2016, though may be re-instated in 2019.

The UPP program effectively ground to a halt in 2018, and was severely criticised for failing to address systemic social and economic challenges in affected communities. It also lost credibility owing to highly publicised abuses committed by UPP officers themselves. By 2018, homicides in Rio de Janeiro had climbed back up to levels before 2009.

Learning lessons

A few general lessons from these various homicide reduction strategies stand out. Some of them are high level and conventional: be sure to set clear strategic priorities, only support activities with a strong track record, and be disciplined about implementation.

Other lessons were more technical: set plans with clear targets and performance indicators, install data capture systems to track trends, invest in in-house monitoring and analytical capacities to interpret results, provide ongoing training and professional development for police, and ensure constant supervision and routine evaluation.

In Brazil, the most effective interventions had a strong people dimension. A necessary ingredient of success was the presence of strong leaders, including both governors and mayors, who could quarterback homicide reduction.

Effective homicide reduction also required the adoption of comprehensive approaches, combining very specific adaptations in policing practice with prevention measures targeting at-risk places and people. This demands the creation of partnerships across institutional silos — between state and city authorities, but also across different secretaries. Also central to success are strong partnerships with academic institutions, including universities and think tanks.

Finally, for homicide reduction efforts to be lasting, strategies had to be institutionalised. In all cases, successful interventions took time to achieve lasting results.

This is a challenge given regular electoral cycles and the ups and downs of Brazil’s economy. When violent crime reduction interventions were terminated prematurely — either because of a change of leadership or a dearth of funds — the homicide reducing effects rapidly evaporated.  Where they were sustained, the murder reducing effects endured.

The good news is that Brazilians don’t need to look to New York or Miami for successful examples. While there are many international examples of successful crime reduction efforts, Brazilians would do well to also to examine what works closer to home.  — Robert Muggah and Renata Giannini

(Picture credit: Flickr/M M)

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