Brazil’s president has described a deepening, nationwide crisis of insecurity as a “national emergency.” But contrary to official rhetoric, the government does not appear to have a coherent plan to address the main drivers of violence and crime.

In an open letter sent to Brazilian governors gathered for an October 27 meeting on public security, President Michel Temer declared that insecurity in Brazil constitutes a “national emergency” that must be addressed through a “convergence of forces.”

The governors’ meeting and the president’s letter both focused on strengthening cooperation between the country’s security forces to combat rising violence by dismantling gangs and disrupting criminal activities like drug dealing and arms trafficking.

Temer’s letter states that in order to “combat violence in [Brazil’s] cities, the entry of arms into the country … must be blocked.”

The president also wrote that “to dismantle criminal factions it is necessary to attack their main source of funding: drugs, which they also bring across our borders, and which sustain the gangs that are compromising the peace and tranquility of families daily.”

In the letter, Temer wrote that the country’s military, federal police and intelligence services are “absolutely committed” to jointly combating crime. The president also stated that government resources have been “mobilized to translate the priority of bringing security to Brazilian citizens into concrete actions.”

Temer said that the government’s security approach would not “neglect aspects of social development,” and that the fight against organized crime would receive the same attention the government has given to “beating the economic recession” from which Brazil has only recently emerged.

InSight Crime Analysis

Although Temer has recognized insecurity in Brazil as a “national emergency” warranting improved cooperation between the country’s security forces and a focus on social development, the government has not yet developed a holistic plan for addressing the complex and intertwined factors contributing to the persistence of violence and crime.

During a recent visit to Brazil, InSight Crime observed clear signs of public concern over growing insecurity in the country. News of violent clashes between police and alleged criminals dominated the headlines of major news outlets. However, mirroring the government’s messaging about insecurity, the media coverage focused almost entirely on the symptoms of the failure to halt rising crime and violence rather than the factors undergirding this dynamic.

For example, it is true that trafficked guns are helping to arm Brazilian crime groups. And competition to control lucrative drug trafficking routes has indeed exacerbated violence in certain parts of the country, particularly as the country’s two most powerful gangs — the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) and the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) — are engaging in violent clashes both in prisons and on the streets.

However, it is unlikely that the government will be able to stop the flow of either weapons or drugs into the country by ramping up enforcement efforts. International experts have increasingly advised authorities to rethink the traditional enforcement-centric approaches to controlling drug use in favor of “non-punitive” strategies aimed at reducing demand. By a similar logic, reducing demand for drugs could diminish the incentive for violent competition over the drug trade, thereby limiting the demand for weapons with which to engage in drug trade-related conflict.

Additionally, the heavy focus placed on trafficking and gang activities fails to recognize the wide range of factors contributing to violence in various parts of the country. For example, criminal groups involved in illegal gold mining in the rural, northern Amazon region recently attacked two government environmental agencies in retaliation for a raid of their site of operations. And reports suggest that the more urban south is experiencing an uptick in violent attacks motivated by racial and religious intolerance.

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In sum, the government’s current approach to insecurity has been largely reactionary rather than proactive, centering almost entirely on deployment of security forces to existing hotspots rather than implementing programs aimed at reducing and preventing crime and violence. This is perhaps most apparent in the city of Rio de Janeiro, where a “war” against gangs and drug traffickers has led to spikes in the numbers of killings by and of security forces, with seemingly no success in containing insecurity. The city’s flagship security initiative, known as the Police Pacification Unit (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora – UPP) program, failed to achieve sustainable results in large part because of an undue focus on retaking physical control of territories controlled by crime groups.

As InSight Crime has previously reported, socioeconomic circumstances, including poverty and lack of access to social services, are a main driver of rising nationwide violence, which disproportionately affects young people and Afro-Brazilians, especially those living in the northern regions of Brazil. Therefore, Temer’s claim that the fight against organized crime and insecurity will be pursued in the same way as the government’s approach to the economic crisis is particularly concerning. The current administration has implemented austerity measures that have cut spending on programs aimed at providing assistance to the poorest and most marginalized sectors of Brazilian society, leaving many citizens without legitimate alternatives to the opportunities offered by the underworld.

It is important for Brazil’s government to acknowledge the seriousness of the security situation, but without a coherent plan targeting the multifaceted drivers of crime and violence, these problems will likely continue to plague Latin America’s largest nation.

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