WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
22 Aug 2012 | Commentary | News

Brazilian Citizen Security Policies: Variety of Experiences Useful in Regional Debates

By Joe Bateman*

Brazil, like many countries in Latin America, has struggled over the last 20 years with how to effectively address high levels of crime and violence. Although crime rates in some parts of the country have dropped substantially over the last decade—most notably the Southeast—crime rates in other parts of the country—especially in the North and Northeast—have risen dramatically over the same period.[1] Given that public security policies in Brazil are decided at the state level, there is significant variance between the experiences of each state. Although there really is no “Brazilian model” for citizen security, there are a variety of experiences in Brazil that are worth studying by others in the region looking for ways to address high levels of crime and violence.

In order to exchange ideas on different citizen security policies, the Brazilian Forum on Public Security (Forum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública) hosts an annual meeting where police, government officials, civil society organizations, and academics from all over Brazil have the opportunity to discuss specific citizen security issues. By design, the meeting engages many differing voices, views, and opinions, recognizing that such dialogue is a necessary step in the process of developing innovative solutions and that guaranteeing public safety is the responsibility of not only the police, but also of several local and national government agencies, as well as members of civil society. This year, WOLA participated in the Forum’s Annual meeting in Porto Alegre, and of particular interest to our work on citizen security in Latin America were the panel discussions and workshops on violence prevention, drug policy, and organized crime.

Violence Prevention: Policy Debates and Dialogues

The workshop on violence prevention included the participation of the International Centre for the Prevention of Crime and was coordinated by the URBAL project, a joint effort by three local governments in Brazil, Peru, and Italy that seeks to strengthen violence prevention policies in their respective cities. The workshop included 40 participants from the local civil and military police, police officers from other Brazilian states, academics, local and international NGOs, and multilateral organizations. The diverse group discussed policies for violence prevention from a variety of perspectives, focusing on how to best identify problems experienced on the ground and subsequently coordinate a variety of government agencies and civil society organizations to address these problems.

The workshop concluded that local governments need to include a variety of public institutions when developing violence prevention policies, not just the police; that communities need to be able to respect local police in order for prevention policies to work; that there needs to be a systematic way to provide feedback about projects to adapt to changing realities; that there needs to be a clear definition of the problems, methods to solve them, and ways to measure progress; and that the role of the police needs to be clearly defined so that they are not merely used as political tools. Some of the most useful feedback during the workshop came from police officers who shared some of their experiences working on the ground with violence prevention, as well as frustrations over constantly having to adapt to changing political agendas. They also said that, in their opinion, the most effective programs were ones that affected entire families or schools instead of just a targeted section of youth.

Many participants, including those from the Northeast state of Pernambuco, stressed the importance of mapping out existing social programs to identify what areas of need are not being met, and the importance of coming up with metrics to measure success of projects so that failed projects can be redesigned and successful projects can be used as models. The members of the police were among the most vocal in calling for a sustained, integral approach to violence prevention that includes long-term funding and the participation of various governmental institutions. Obstacles remain, however, in identifying how to effectively bring local groups, policymakers, and police together to actually decide local prevention policies; specifying each sector’s role; and ensuring the execution of projects. But, as noted in past WOLA reports,[2] this process is a necessary step in successfully addressing problems of crime and violence at the local level. The discussion’s inclusion of all parts of the equation, from theoretical sociological issues to practical day-to-day implementations of these policies, made for an extremely useful debate on violence prevention policies in Brazil.

Drug Policy: Alternatives to the Current Paradigms

The drug policy panel also drew a broad range of participants and audience members, including professors, researchers, former and current members of the federal government, activists, and police officers. The presentations encouraged the audience to challenge current paradigms and devise alternatives to current drug policies in Brazil. The policy issues discussed ranged from how to deal with problems of overcrowding in prisons, unjust or discriminatory law enforcement practices, health concerns, and proposals to change the 2006 Drug Law (Lei de Drogas (Lei 11.343/06)).

Since the 2006 Drug Law was passed, the number of people incarcerated for drug-related crimes in Brazil has more than doubled.[3] The law decriminalized possession of drugs for personal use and increased the amount of prison time for drug trafficking, but it did not specify how to differentiate between the two. Because of the law’s lack of clarity, many people who possessed small amounts of drugs for personal use have been labeled traffickers and received long sentences. Furthermore, many experts—including several panel members—claim that poor people living in marginalized areas are disproportionately affected by the law’s ambiguity and are more frequently labeled by police as drug traffickers than people arrested with drugs in rich areas. One panelist argued that drug policy goals should be centered upon public health and violence reduction; current metrics, however, measure success as the number of drug apprehensions and arrests, which do little to reflect public health or levels of violence. There is currently momentum to reform the 2006 drug law so that it establishes clearer thresholds for defining who is a user and who is a drug trafficker so that there is less room for discrimination.

Organized Crime and Responses

The panel on organized crime included the theoretical perspective from the Rio Grande do Sul Police Chief; the experiences in São Paulo with the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), an organized criminal network run from the prisons in São Paulo; and the experience in Rio de Janeiro with its militias, which are criminal groups made up of off-duty or retired police officers that control large amounts of territory in Rio. Guaracy Mingardi, a former investigator for the São Paulo police, talked about how the PCC formed originally as a protection scheme within the prisons and as a way to demand better prison conditions. Later, the PCC transformed into an organized criminal network that dominated nearly the entire prison system in the state and ran a huge network of criminal activities outside of the prisons using cell phones and extortions. While the violence associated with the PCC in São Paulo has declined over the last few years—a change that is so
metimes attributed to a truce between the PCC and the police—the PCC remain a dominant force within the prison system and still conduct illegal activities outside of it. Mingardi stressed the need for cooperation from the penitentiary system, not just the police, to deal with this kind of organized crime.

The presentation about the militias by Vinicius George, a member of the Rio Civilian Police and staffer for Rio de Janeiro State Legislator Marcelo Freixo, provided an interesting perspective on how a broad coalition of members from civil society, the press, and the government can work together against organized crime. In 2008, George and Freixo, who has long been a defender of human rights in Rio, led a Parliamentary Investigation Commission (Comissão Parlimentar de Inquérito, CPI) into the militias to expose their links to the local political system. The investigation received support from the media, local civil society organizations, favela residents, and participation from trusted police sources to collect tips from hotlines and conduct interviews. Upon finishing the investigation, the Commission published a 282 page report detailing their findings. Over 150 criminal prosecution cases were opened, and many of those involved, including acting and former police officers and firefighters as well as elected officials, were convicted and sentenced to prison time. The report exposed the links between politicians and militia groups, taking an important first step toward dismantling these organized criminal groups. However, the militias’ economic interests were never dealt with as thoroughly as the links to the political system were with the CPI investigation, which has allowed for their continued existence.

In order for the militias to be fully disarticulated, the government of Rio will have to address the economic interests of the militias and bring in formal services to these communities, such as city bus transportation routes, trash collection, gas, internet, and cable, which are currently controlled by the militias. Until the state displaces these criminal organizations and establishes a legitimate, long-term presence, the problem will continue to increase. Although there has only been limited success in disarticulating the links between the militias and the political system in Rio, the 2008 Militia CPI exposed the previously ignored problem and showed that with broad support from a variety of actors, difficult and politically sensitive problems associated with organized crime can begin to be addressed. It also serves as an example of how human rights defenders can take the lead in fighting organized crime by ensuring the rights of marginalized people and by holding state actors accountable for pervasive corruption.


Many who study issues of public safety in Brazil focus on the innovative experience of the Police Pacification Units (Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora, UPP) in Rio de Janeiro,[4] as they have received positive national and international press and have achieved a reduction in homicides in the affected areas, but Brazil can offer much more to regional debates on citizen security than just the experience with the UPPs. The Rio UPP experience is in no way the “Brazilian model” for citizen security, nor should it be the only strategy studied by other countries in the region looking for new ideas on how to combat crime and violence. Besides the issues addressed in the panels described above, the dramatic reductions in crime rates in São Paulo and Pernambuco over the last decade should be studied in more detail. In these two very different contexts, there are a variety of factors contributing to violence reduction that could provide new ideas for crime prevention and reduction in other areas of the country or in other countries in the hemisphere, such as arms control, investment in the professionalization of the police, and local development projects. Civil society organizations in both of these states have played an important role in the proposal and implementation of policies, and these groups could share their experiences advocating for rights-respecting public security policies with colleagues.

Additionally, Brazil has expanded its use of crime observatories and statistics gathering. In 2007, the Forum began collecting data on crime and violence from the state governments and publishing the statistics in the yearly Anuario. Since the first edition of the Anuario published in 2007 (for which good data was hard to find), it has been a useful tool in showing the need for systematic and uniform reporting of criminal data so that policies address current realities on the ground. Regina Miki, the Brazilian Secretary for Public Security (Secretária Nacional de Segurança Pública), announced at the Forum’s annual meeting in Port Alegre this July that the federal government was going to launch the National System of Information for Public Security, Prisons, and Drugs (Sistema Nacional de Informações de Segurança Pública, Prisionais e sobre Drogas, SINESP) in 2013, which will help make data collection in these areas uniform. The creation of SINESP was largely a response to the Forum’s Anuario, which pointed out that the lack of uniform data was presenting a major problem for analysts and policy makers working on issues of public safety. Collecting reliable statistics on crime and violence is also a major obstacle in other countries in Latin America, and policy makers and advocates in other countries trying to address these issues could learn valuable lessons from the process currently underway in Brazil.

In 2007, after years of advocacy by many Forum members and other activists, the Brazilian Congress passed the law creating the National Program for Public Safety with Citizenship (Programa Nacional de Segurança Pública com Cidadania Pronasci). This innovative federal program coordinates strategies for violence prevention and law enforcement at the national level with a strong emphasis on social policies, the protection of victims, and respect for human rights. It also emphasizes the participation of at-risk youth, police, and civil society organizations in the formation of these policies. While the program has been scaled back during the Dilma administration, it still represents a huge advancement in the promotion of a human rights-focused citizen security strategy in Brazil and should not be abandoned. At this year’s meeting, members of the Forum sent a letter to the federal government encouraging the Dilma administration to reassume the role of promoting rights-respecting public security policies throughout the country, a role that was assumed by the Lula administration but that has been severely reduced during the current government.

Unfortunately, there really is no magic bullet that can solve all problems associated with crime and violence in every context. No one specific method of addressing crime that has success in one city, state, or country should be transferred to another without adaptation to local realities, if it is transferrable at all. However, the process of involving various relevant sectors (policy makers, police, local communities, NGOs, academics, etc.), examining the causes of crime, and tailoring policies to address local problems is a lesson learned in many crime reduction experiences in Brazil that should be emphasized when attempting to solve similar problems elsewhere.

*Joe Bateman is WOLA’s Program Officer for Brazil and Citizen Security

[1] See Mapa da Violência 2012: Os Novos Padrões da Violência Homicida no Brasil. http://www.mapadaviolencia.org.br/pdf2012/mapa2012_web.pdf

[2] The 2008 WOLA report, Daring to Care: Community-Based Responses to Youth Gang Violence in Central America and Central American Immigrant Communities in the United Statesaddresses some of the difficulties associated with coordinating a variety of actors at the community level to address crime and violence. The 2011 WOLA report Tackling Urban Violence in Latin America: Reversing Exclusion through Smart Policing and Social Investmentalso stresses the need to include a variety of actors when forming and implementing public policies to address violence.

[3] See the chapter on Brazilin the 2010 WOLA report Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America.

[4]See “‘Os donos do morro’: uma avaliação exploratória do impacto das unidades de polícia pacificadora (UPPs) no Rio de Janeiro,” a study coordinated by Ignacio Cano for the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety and Laboratory for Violence Analysis of the Rio de Janeiro State University.  See also the two part study from the Center for Security and Citizenship Studies, “Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (UPPs): O que pensam os policiais.”