SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Brazil has beat its own macabre record for homicides: 63,880 people were murdered across the country in 2017, up 3 percent from the year before, according to a new study.
That’s 175 deaths per day.
Data from the Brazilian Forum of Public Security, a research organization, shows the murder rate in the country was 30.8 per 100,000 people, up from 29.9 in 2016. For the sake of comparison, the United States had five homicides per 100,000 people in 2015 — the most recent year for which data are available — down from eight per 100,000 in 1996. Even Mexico, which is also suffering from a soaring murder rate, had less homicides per capita with 25 per 100,000 last year.
Organized crime is one of the driving factors behind the rise.
Brazil’s murder rate has soared as rival drug gangs battle for territory in a country that shares borders with the three biggest cocaine producing countries in the world — Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Brazil is a major consumer of both cocaine and crack and a key transit point for cocaine headed to Europe and Asia.
Not surprisingly, two of the states with the highest murder rates, Acre and Ceará, are thoroughfares along the main smuggling routes.
At the same time, budgets for public security have been slashed amid the deepest recession the country has seen, leaving law enforcement underpaid and underprepared to deal with the mounting violence. Hampered by limited resources, the police are responding by ratcheting up their brutality.
The vast majority of victims are young, black, male and poor, and often live in the favelas, or slums, where gang warfare has been most pronounced, said Renato Sérgio de Lima, director of the Brazilian Forum of Public Security.
Most of the homicides occurred in urban centers, particularly in the impoverished north and northeast of the country.
Rio Grande do Norte, in northeastern Brazil, has the dubious honor of being the state with the highest murder rate: 63.9 per 100,000. A bloody prison riot in January 2017 sparked by rival drug gangs left 26 dead, helping push the area to the top of the list.
Many of the victims — 5,144 — were killed by police officers. That’s an average of 14 people killed by the police each day, a number that went up by 20 percent over the previous year.
With the murder rate soaring, Brazilians are taking precautions, such as going out less often at night. In Rio de Janeiro, a flurry of new bars, restaurants and hotels opened ahead of the 2016 Olympics, but the soaring violence has prompted the federal government to send in soldiers to keep the peace, scaring away tourists and locals alike.
Tanks and soldiers are now a common site along Ipanema Beach. In the bohemian Lapa neighborhood, bars and restaurants clear out early. One of Rio’s most popular traditional samba bars, Semente, was forced to close its doors after 20 years in October as business dwindled.
Some Brazilians are leaving the country — or considering it. A recent survey showed 62 percent of young Brazilians would emigrate if they could, in search of better jobs, but also to flee the growing violence.
Public security has also become one of the biggest topics of debate in the months leading up October’s presidential elections.
Fear of crime has already had an impact on the elections by shaping the field of candidates. Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right candidate and former army captain, is a top contender. He climbed in the polls by vowing to crack down on crime.
Mr. Bolsonaro says he will make it easier to bear arms and will empower security forces to use harsher tactics against criminals, arguing that the police should be allowed to use lethal force against them.
Other candidates have adopted more subtle language, but there is no doubt that the debate over public security will be a key factor in deciding the outcome of the country’s splintered race.
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