Fear of Street Crime in Brazil

The state of the welfare of the citizenry should not be measured solely in terms of personal income.  If money buys happiness, then all our lives would be so much simpler.  The quality of life includes many other factors, including climate, cost of living, employment opportunities, crime rates, environmental quality, quality of schools, post-secondary education, quality of city services, social service system, quality of health care, quality of neighborhoods, traffic congestion, availability of business/professional services, availability of retail shopping, cultural opportunities, library services, recreational programs, parks and open space, etc.

Of these factors, the most visible one is the crime rate, especially with respect to daily street crimes.  Some of the other issues can be ignored or sidestepped.  For example, if public schools are dysfunctional, one can send one's children to private school (provided that one has the means).  When street crime is perceived to be rampant, then anything can happen to anyone anywhere at any time and the best that one can do is to stay behind the fortified walls of one's home.

By reputation, certain Latin American countries are among the most crime-ridden places on earth.  It is actually difficult to make direct comparisons across countries.  The first obstacle is in the matter of crime statistics, beginning with the availability of such information and then continuing with the lack of standardized definitions temporally and spatially.  A further complication is that many crimes go unreported to data collection agencies, because some victims believe that reporting crimes is futile and may even attract retaliation while other victims may even believe that law enforcement agents are the cause of, and not the solution to, the crimes.

The second obstacle is that it is the perception of the people that matters, not the actual crime rates.  For example, Central Park in New York City is statistically the safest precinct in that city, but there are still lingering perceptions across the world that it is dark and dangerous.  These distorted perceptions are fed by tabloid news coverage that magnifies even a minor misdemeanour inside Central Park, while serious crime waves in lower class neighborhoods in the same city go unnoticed.  So even if the streets are safe, in either an absolute or relative sense, the citizenry may still feel besieged because of the relentless barrage of crime news that they read or heard about each day.

We will now cite some survey data from the TGI Brasil study conducted by IBOPE.  This is an survey of 10,624 Brazilians between the ages of 12 to 64 years old interviewed during 2001.  This is not a complete national study; but, as with most commercial research, the coverage is for the nine major cities together with the interior portions in the south and southeast portions of the country.  

There is a statement included in the TGI Brasil survey, "I don't feel safe when I walk the streets of my town/city."  The respondents can choose to say that they 'completely agree', 'agree somewhat', 'neither agree nor disagree', 'disagree somewhat' and 'disagree completely'.  Of the 10,624 respondents, 49% said that they completely agreed with the statement.  This is an uncomfortably high number, with about half the population saying that they do not feel safe.  The next table gives the demographic breakdown of the responses.

Demographic Groups

%Completely agree with "I don't feel safe when I walk the streets of my town/city"
Geographical Region
     Brasília (Federal district)
     Belo Horizonte
     Porto Alegre
     Rio de Janeiro
     São Paulo
     São Paulo (interior)
     South/Southeast (interior)

Socio-economic Level

     Males 12-19
     Males 20-24
     Males 25-34
     Males 35-44
     Males 45-54
     Males 55-64

     Females 12-19
     Females 20-24
     Females 25-34
     Females 35-44
     Females 45-54
     Females 55-64



 From the table, there are several noteworthy things:

How to solve the problem of crime?  There are no easy answers.  The problem of crime is rooted deeply in the social system.  Brazil is a country with extreme inequality, with a small elite controlling the wealth and power and a huge powerless under-class living at subsistence level.  Constitutionally, Brazil is a democracy.  But the Brazilian democracy has some unique developments: "the justice system is ineffective, justice is exercised as a privilege of the elite, individual and civil rights are delegitimated, and human rights violations (especially by the state) are routine" (Caldeira, p.372).  In turn, the rhetoric on crime has now included a host of complex issues: "the elaboration of prejudice in the talk of crime, the symbolic re-creation of inequalities just as democracy took root, the support of police violence and of private and illegal measures of dealing with crime, the walling of the city, the enclosure and dislocation of the rich, the creation for fortified enclaves and changes in public space toward more explicitly separated and undemocratic patterns, the disrespect of human rights and their identification with 'privileges for bandits,' and the defense of the death penalty and summary executions" (p.373).  Caldeira closes her book with these two sentences, "Brazilian democracy will probably continue to be unique, but if it aspires to be less violent, it must not only legitimate the justice system but also stop playing out its games of power and abuse of authority on the bodies of the dominated.  It will have to find ways to democratize public space, renegotiate borders, and respect civil rights" (p.375).



(posted by Roland Soong, 9/01/2001)

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