Criminal Justice Reforms in Brazil: A Lesson for Us


            A recent article by Paul E. Amar (Visiting Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Federal University Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro) on criminal justice reforms in Brazil is rather surprising; in the sense that such an analysis is rare among criminologists in the United States (“Reform in Rio: Reconsidering the Myths of Crime and Violence.” NACLA Report on the Americas 37, 2 (September/October, 2003), on-line ( Even more incredible is what Brazil is doing about the crime problem, taking an approach long advocated by progressives and critical criminologists.


            He begins his article by noting that until recently Brazil had fallen into the trap - all too common - of viewing crime from the “war” metaphor, as in the “war on crime” phrase, suggesting that crime is merely a “technical” problem requiring a “get tough” stance.  Amar observed that while Brazil’s media viewed the U.S. involvement in Iraq as illegitimate and illegal, they called Rio’s “war on crime” perfectly legal.  Amar observed that whereas there was much sympathy to Iraqi civilian casualties, this view was not extended to the innocent victims of police incursions into the “favelas” of Brazil - hilltop shantytowns.  The militarization of the police was reflected in media headlines like “Terrorism: Our War,” meaning that the “crime problem” was like terrorism and must be stamped out, while ignoring the real causes of crime and even the “crimes” of the police and corporate elite.


            However, things in Brazil began to change as more and more people began to see the error in viewing crime from such a militaristic perspective.  Part of the turnabout came as a result of some serious reexamination of various crime myths, which Amar discusses at length. More specifically, Amar reviews four major myths (which, he says, justified militaristic responses to crime): (1) racial and economic inequalities produce crime; (2) young black males, especially “favela” adolescents (“street kids”) are the main perpetrators of crime, especially violence; (3) narcotraffic cartels create “parallel states” that are “outside the purview of normal government”; (4) International terrorism has infiltrated  narcotrafficking and related criminality, and hence beyond the reach of rational responses.


            Concerning the first myth, Amar notes that although inequality has existed for centuries, the more recent increase in violence and patterns of narcotrafficking and the militarized response by the police date only to the early 1980s.  In 1982, for example, homicide rates in both Rio and New York City were about the same (23 per 100,000).  By 1992, however, the rate in Rio stood at 72.  This was followed by a decrease to 47 by 2002.  Then he notes that one type of violence has been going up, namely, rates of police executions of untried “suspects,” mostly black males.  There were 427 of these incidents in 2000; by 2002 the number had more than doubled to more than 900.  He noted that just in April 2003 alone, 125 were killed, which if the trends had continued would have reached more than 1,500 in 2003, approaching the number of Iraqi civilians killed in the U.S. invasion.


            Amar notes that the recent increase in police violence is correlated with “civilian officials tolerating or encouraging the intensifying of police militarism and impunity in the ‘war on crime’ context.”  These are among the crime causing factors not typically examined and perhaps the reason why local authorities have usually ignored them. At the start of the 1980s Brazil adopted this militarization technique, modeled in part after “counterinsurgency and counterterrorism warfare” while at the same time elites deregulated “wealth trafficking,” and instituted global financial havens which facilitated transborder capital flow.  Thus, narcotrafficking “became a more tempting market for state, police and transnational corruption rackets.”  Amar reports that there developed crucial links to wealth and power that protected these networks, preventing police from investigation and perhaps more crucially, from media exposure.  Not surprisingly, therefore, inequality, which was always represented by a black face, remained the main cause of crime and violence, rather than these structures of power and corruption.  Amar poses the most important question when he wonders “why some forms of violence are represented as causes and spectacle, while others go untold.”  Especially important here is the fact that most positive accomplishments are not accompanied with a mention of race, while crime reporting always includes race.  Also, not at all unusual, corporate and white collar crime, state corruption, money laundering by elites, etc. (committed by whites) are virtually ignored.  This is just like the US media views of crime and violence.  It is also like our standard view of terrorism: it is “terrorism” when they do it, but not when we do it.


            It is not like researchers have never pointed out these things, for they have, but the research has been largely ignored, just like in the US.  One interesting development was that many drug cartels first began within the prison system during the 1960s and 1970s when Brazil was under a military dictatorship which resulted in an increase in the use of imprisonment (of many different people from dissidents to union organizers to petty thieves). One tactic warden began to us (common throughout the history of American prisons) is to allow prisoners to develop gangs to provide internal security, which resulted in the creation of many of today’s drug cartels.  (Similarly, the infamous “People and Folk” gang “nations” first emerged within the Illinois prison system in the 1970s.)


            Amar cites several studies by geographers and urban sociologists who note that “state planning and registry institutions have been responsible for creating the breeding grounds for violence.”  Specifically, the state was denying recognition, along with regulation and legal protection of marginalized groups (e.g., denying property rights as well as vital services to shantytown dwellers).


            The final myth revolves around the mistaken notion that drug trafficking organizations have been “infiltrated” by international “terrorist” groups like Columbia’s FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia).  (This reminds me of how US officials used to blame “outside agitators” - especially “Communists”- for urban uprisings or migrating gangs from Los Angeles and other large cities forcing young people to join gangs.)  Ironically, resistance to such an interpretation has come from a most unlikely source - the military.  Brazil’s military has backed the civilian government of President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva and resisted temptations to leverage their power by making up “security threats.” To the contrary, the military has encouraged reforms, advocating the demilitarization of society, fostering the rule of law and urging preventive measures in dealing with crime. Amar observes that there has been no evidence that crime has been caused by any “international terrorist conspiracy.”  To the contrary, all evidence points to the causes of crime by such variables as corruption, exploitation, racism, and the like, just as elsewhere - truisms within the field of criminology, by the way, although ignored by US policymakers.


            The research documenting the real causes of crime has been done by various researchers along with policymakers and state officials in Brazil.  This reminds me of what was done in the US back in the 1960s when Lyndon Johnson set up various “task forces” to investigate crime and criminal justice.  This became known as the “President’s Commission on Law and Administration of Justice.” This brought together a wide variety of some of the leading academics in sociology, criminology and other disciplines to engage in some very good research.  The various task force reports (e.g., juvenile delinquency, corrections, police, etc.) have been cited more than any other similar commissions during the past 100 years.  One might reasonably wonder why a similar commission has not been established in more recent years. Perhaps it is because so many of these reports challenged the status quo too much.


            One of the most remarkable developments in Brazil is the fact that government officials, the police and various criminal justice officials have sought out academics.  Amar notes that “critical thinkers have worked their way up the political hierarchy rather rapidly, perhaps facilitated by the flexible and diverse structure of party politics.”  This is truly astounding and something I cannot imagine ever happening in the US.  (Imagine the Bush administration seeking out people like me to consult over policy issues!) Even more remarkable is the rise of one of the leading figures in Brazil, Dr. Luiz Soares, an ethnographer, a former member of the Communist Party and a “critical criminologist”!  He now serves as the National Secretary of Public Security, which is roughly the equivalent to the FBI Director or head of Homeland Security in the US.  He has been involved in developing a National Security Plan to reduce crime and violence in Brazil.  This plan entails four main projects:


1.         The integration of different police forces (with many different and often conflicting roles, procedures, etc.) throughout the country.  They are trying to work together within a common framework of data collection, civilian oversight, etc.


2.         The plan targets “networks of corruption, money laundering, arms trafficking and police racketeering,” which would hopefully reduce police violence, brutality and racism and restore confidence among citizens.


3.         Focusing on prevention rather than punishment.  A most unique approach, but perfectly logical, and something largely ignored in the US (ironically, something urged very strongly by Johnson’s commission, referred to above).  Prevention includes “strengthening cultural, educational, collective means of producing pride and success among the youth.”  Incidentally, carrying firearms will be prohibited nationally, another proposal highly unlikely to happen in the US, at least in our lifetime. 


4.         Finally, the most unusual part of the plan involves “integrating aspects of police forces with academic institutions, research foundations, NGOs, human rights groups and community organizations.”  It includes transforming police stations into “centers where citizen-service providers, human rights groups and community representatives are located alongside police officers...”  This will result, they hope, in police stations being less intimidating and less likely to be perceived as “alien powers.”  This part of the plan also includes giving police officers incentives (salary increases, promotions) for participating in courses that teach them about human rights, etc.  Also, they propose setting up special all-women’s police stations to deal with domestic violence and, believe it or not, the world’s first all-lesbian/gay/transgender police station!  Also, the Brazilian National Social Science Research Organization and National Higher-Education Training Foundation are working to establish a Public Security University.  These ideas have never been even suggested in the US, much less developed! 


            After the formal end of the Iraq war in May, state and federal officials began urging the news media to shift their focus toward issues of police brutality, money laundering and corruption issues.  Following the National Plan set up by Soares, there was a public viewing of the film “Bowling for Columbine.”  Former Rio Governor Anthony Garotinho was appointed as Security Czar and during the viewing of this film, stated that “The culture of fear is greater than the reality. We should not plant fear, and the press has a great responsibility in this sense.”


            Amar concludes that these recent efforts “serve as a cornerstone of Lula-era (the new Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva) efforts to invest in human capital and in the infrastructure of equality, rather than in militarization and structural violence.”


            It remains to be seen whether and to what extent these reforms are successful.  I suspect that there may be some resistance from some quarters, as such reforms challenge some serious vested interests and power centers within Brazilian society.  The reforms are of the type long recommended by critical criminologists in the US. (e.g., Elliott Currie, Crime and Punishment in America, Metropolitan Books, 1998). Criminologists in the US would do well to examine what is being done in Brazil, and then communicate this to policymakers, even though such ideas may fall upon deaf ears. 


© 2005 by Randall G. Shelden. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.