I’ve moved out of Brazil almost 14 years ago. I go back to visit every 2 years or so, and in many ways this has allowed me to see changes that people living in Brazil have a hard time noticing. I’ve seen the effects of the improved economy, social changes, and political ones as well.
One such change that became pretty evident to me in this last trip is something that might sound like a hyperbole but it really isn’t: the almost complete breakdown of the law and order in Sao Paulo.
Now you ask me, how could that be? The economy there is indeed booming. You see fancy new sky scrapers popping up everywhere. Even some social indicators like children begging for money at traffic lights seemed to have improved. So how can these improvements be followed by an escalation of urban violence?
I see at least 3 factors that seem to be related here. First, a moral breakdown. The stigma around being an outlaw in Brazil has been eroding for quite a while but now has reached the other end of the spectrum: it is actually cool to be a criminal. This ‘thug culture’ is not exclusive to Brazil (we have this in some ways here in the Us as well) but it is something that was not very prominent before.
Second, the expansion and enforcement of gun control. For many decades Brazil’s gun laws were restrictive but not draconian. That changed in 2003 with the “Estatuto do Desarmamento – Lei 10.826” which makes basically impossible to own a gun as a regular citizen in Brazil. Not even inside your own house. I don’t need to mention that this has only worked in making guns unavailable to law abiding citizens; criminals still have easy access to whatever they want.
Third, and probably the most important factor, is a cultural change that I call ‘the pussyfication of the Brazilian citizen’. Let me try to explain what this means. In previous decades the victims of crimes were still seen as that: victims. If someone got hurt during a crime the criminals were always to blame. Society in Brazil was always a bit passive but there was at least the instinct of reaction; that is, victims fought back as much as possible an in general people saw that as a natural reaction. This has changed completely. Nowadays it is expected – indeed required – that regular citizens behave as ‘good victims’. This means not reacting at all during crimes no matter what the circumstances are; ideally you should help criminals to effectively do their ‘job’ as easily and quickly as possible. If someone gets hurt it is really your fault! The only alternative here is to become an undesirable victim; that is, if you don’t want to have your purse stolen don’t have one; if you don’t want to have you car stolen don’t buy a car that is too nice. So on and so forth.
The overall effect of these changes is astounding. The feeling of insecurity in Brazil now is even greater than it was when I left. Not because the overall number of criminal occurrences have risen (according to official numbers it has fallen a bit) but because of the nature of crime. One quite telling example is the rise of what is called ‘arrastao’ (which I translate as ‘big sweep’). This was initially a type of crime committed in Rio’s beaches were a large number of criminals from the favelas would go as a group through the beaches and steal from a large number of people simultaneously. The strategy back then was to create a large area of chaos that would make hard for police to stop them. At that time this was a daring and not a very common crime. Police would later raid the favelas and that was enough deterrent. This strategy has evolved to a type of crime that is very common and now committed everywhere. Small bands of criminals invade restaurants, markets, shopping mall stores, and simply rob everyone and everything in sight. They can only do that because it is understood that no one will ever react. There is no need for robbers to keep an eye on their victims. Now and then criminals will kill some victims not because they have reacted but only to keep the psychological terror alive on their minds (in a recent case a guy was executed because robbers thought that ‘he looked like a cop’).
The popularization of the big sweep is one of the symptoms of the breakdown I mentioned at the beginning of the post. Criminals are so much in control that they are now looking for efficiencies; the big sweep is simply economies of scale in criminal activity.
When you add police corruption, a slow and inefficient judicial system (guided by one of the most liberal and therefore stupid constitutions ever written) and you get the current situation: chaos. Some people are calling this the Mexicanization of Brazil but the way I see it this is much worse. Mexico is in an open war against drug cartels. The number of casualties is larger but the sides are well defined and therefore the chances of an actual solution are greater. Brazil is in a slow burning/ muddled and chaotic struggle where people have really lost perspective of things. The lefty intelligentsia who controls the country and preached for years that violence was directly linked to poverty have gone into a stupor since reality proved them wrong. They now act as surprised as everyone else at the current situation and as always has no idea how to solve this problem. The media is subdued and passive.