Latin America’s Killer Cops Won’t Solve Its Crime Problem

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Early one morning in August, Brazilians were transfixed by a real-time crime scene. A young man hijacked a crowded city bus on a Rio de Janeiro bridge and threatened to set the vehicle ablaze. When negotiations failed, he was killed by a police sniper. Millions took in the grim sequence on live television. Rio’s finest did their job admirably. Not so Governor Wilson Witzel, who hopped out of his helicopter onto the bridge and punched the air, like Neymar commemorating a World Cup goal.

A desperate crime, police in the public glare, elected officials acting badly: In a sense, this was Latin America writ small. Across the region, authorities playing to the general panic over violent crime increasingly have met outlaws with deadly force and misguided bravado. Yet even as politicians have spun truculence as command-and-control and claimed victories in battles they didn’t fight, widespread anxiety over public safety continues unabated. Worse, the turn to draconian methods comes with insidious costs.

Criminal violence is not only robbing Latin America of its youth, wealth and peace of mind, but also roiling its politics. It was the crime epidemic on top of spreading corruption and lackluster economic growth that helped to oust establishment leaders and boosted outsiders pledging to mop up outlaws, such as Mexican left-wing populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and El Salvador’s maverick Nayib Bukele.

Nowhere was the law-and-order vote more expressive than in Brazil, where it swept former army captain and authoritarian nostalgist Jair Bolsonaro into office, with a platoon of military men and hair-trigger candidates like Witzel in tow. Bolsonaro’s signature campaign sound bite: “A good criminal is a dead criminal.”

Mind you, wins for public safety in Latin America, home to 43 of the world’s 50 most violent cities in 2016, are worth celebrating. As Brazilian Justice Minister Sergio Moro recently announced after homicides fell 20% this year through June, “Anyone who ignores federal initiatives to reduce homicides is ideologically blind.”

But outbreaks of official hubris can also distort law-keeping, as bilious leaders encourage or wink at trigger-happy police. As Robert Muggah, a public-safety expert at Brazil’s Igarape Institute, told me, “Excessive police violence undermines confidence in state institutions and encourages impunity and vigilantism.”

While a sharpshooter avoided a wider tragedy in last month’s televised bus-jacking, elsewhere the bodies have been piling up. In Rio de Janeiro state alone, cops killed more (1,075) in seven months than they did during any 12-month period for 10 of the last 16 years. Although homicides are down nationwide, police killings increased 23% this year, “a historic high,” according to Muggah. In the Americas, only Venezuela, where the economy has all but collapsed, and El Salvador, home to warring international drug cartels, have worse records of lethal force by state security.

Some officials go so far as to credit shoot-first policing with more effective crime-fighting. And Rio’s police homicide rates will also fall, Witzel recently said, because “the police have already sent their message.”

Crime experts demur on how effective and necessary that “message” has been. In fact, homicides have been falling since at least early 2018, well before Bolsonaro came to office. What’s more, crime generally surges or ebbs due to a complex, yearslong interplay of social, demographic and policy shifts. For example: The 12% decline since 2000 of Brazil’s youth population, for whom joblessness and frustrations run high, may have presaged the recent decline in homicides. So, perhaps, did the tentative truce between rival criminal gangs, who traditionally battle for street corners.

Rethinking policy would help. Consider the recent trajectory of once blood-soaked Colombian cities such as Medellin and Cali: By treating street crime hot spots not as a battlefield but a health emergency — say, by improving public services, using big data to map “outbreaks” and increasing neighborhood police — authorities saw street crime plunge.

Instead of driving out addicts from a thief-infested urban crack corridor, authorities in Belo Horizonte, a big Brazilian state capital, installed exercise equipment and LED street lights and invited street artists to brighten up the Lagoinha neighborhood. Children have since displaced the addicts and thieves. The city also increased patrols by armed municipal guards, on the argument that they knew the streets better than state flatfoots. The municipal police never fired a shot, but helped bring down crime. Belo Horizonte’s homicide rate fell 24% in 2018, and another 15% in the first quarter of this year. 

“Crimes are like plane accidents, which typically are triggered not by one fatal mistake but a sequence of policy errors and miscues,” former Belo Horizonte secretary of public safety Claudio Beato told me. “If the high command gives the signal that it’s all right to shoot, the message quickly gets down to the street.”

Some officials foolishly seem to be counting on just that. Last week a local lawmaker in Espirito Santo state — one of 72 military officers elected on Bolsonaro’s ruling party ticket — offered a reward to anyone who executed and fetched the body of a suspected local killer. Never mind that he himself was arrested in 2017 for allegedly inciting a police rebellion that paralyzed state law-keeping and provoked a crime spree resulting in 198 deaths. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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