Rutgers professor addresses crime in Brazil

Julie Balzarini

Ted Goertzel, professor of sociology at Rutgers University, gave a lecture on “Violent Crime in Brazil: Recent Trends” on Tuesday in the Health Services Building.

Co-sponsored by the department of sociology and criminal justice, and made possible by a Title VI Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, this presentation examined how new data on crime in Brazil challenges the stereotypes about violent crime in developing countries.

“Most of the time you hear about how bad crime is in Brazil, but the recent news is that it has improved,” Goertzel said.

According to Goertzel, there has been a major decline in homicide in São Paulo, a major industrial and financial center of Brazil.

Since 1997, the number of homicides per 100,000 residents has dropped from 52.46 to 11.54.

“That’s really a striking success in terms of social policy,” Goertzel said. “Experts were not able to predict it was going to get better. It was pretty much missed by everybody. The problem is we never really understood why it was going up. I think it’s now returning to normal, rather than something exceptional happening.”

Goertzel compared these changes in São Paulo to other Brazillian cities.

“The crime rate in Rio de Janeiro rose in the 1980s and 1990s due to the transitioning away from a military government to a democracy,” he said.

Goertzel also compared these trends to those in the United States.

“If you look at the history of homicide in the United States, you see some rather remarkable cycles most people don’t know about,” he said. “There was actually a drop in the homicide rate at the ending of the prohibition. The homicide rate also rose in the 1970s, a period of substantial social disruption. It came down in the 1990s probably due to the modernization of policing, or perhaps a change in the zeitgest, or the spirit of the times.”

Goertzel also discussed some Latin American contrasts. According to Goertzel, homicide in Columbia declined 15 percent in the three years from 2003 – ’06 under a conservative government. In Venezuela, however, homicide rates increased 67 percent from 1999-2005, despite a leftist government that aspired to lessen poverty and inequality.

“There doesn’t seem to be a general Latin American trend,” Goertzel said. “There is little evidence that crime rates vary with economic conditions in either the United States or Brazil. Homicide rates are not necessarily highest in the poorest neighborhoods or at the times of highest unemployment or highest economic crisis.”

There are large variations in crime rates between Brazillian states, suggesting that policy differences are very important.

“This says that there really is something you can do about it, and some states are doing better than others,” Goertzel said.

He also brought up the issue of gun control.

“Brazil has a lot of problems with guns,” he said. “They were going to ban guns all together, but the anti-gun legislation mobilized against it, and it was voted down.”

Unlike the United States, there is no constitutional right to carry a gun in Brazil.

“The state of São Poulo has been especially effective enforcing some of the gun control law,” Goertzel said. “The police take credit for this. They believe crime has come down because people aren’t carrying as many firearms.”

Goertzel emphazised the importance of paying attention to cyclical trends in crime and other phenomena in Brazil.

“When everything comes up, you should expect it to come down,” Goertzel said. “We tend to have a very linear view of the world, but things don’t work that way.”

Goertzel also discussed the modernization of policing in São Paoulo.

New tactics include geographic information systems, sending saturation units into high crime areas, telephone hotlines, community policing stations, specialized units for violence against women, aggressive efforts to remove illegal firearms from the streets, earlier closing of bars and specialized anti-homicide and anti-kidnapping squads.Goertzel credits this modernization for the decline in homicide rates. He then showed some violent photos of drug gangs who have declared war on the city government, and discussed how these drug wards drown out coverage of the declining rates of routine homicide.

“The drug wars are important, but they kill many fewer people than everyday homicides,” said Goertzel. “There are groups who are trying to get coverage, and they are succeeding.”