From overpopulated, crumbling prisons to tens of thousands of disappearances every year, as well as millions of weapons in circulation, Brazil's security panorama looks grim, according to the 2023 Brazilian Public Security Annual.
Prepared by the Brazilian Forum for Public Security (Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública), this statistics-heavy guide, now in its 17th year, provides a thorough review of the criminal and judicial outlook of Latin America's largest economy.
Here, InSight Crime breaks down the major findings of the 2023 edition.
Brazil Can't Lock Up Any More People
In 2022, Brazil was lacking adequate prison facilities for over 230,000 inmates, an increase of almost 50,000 in just a year, the report found. The most overcrowded facilities were in the northeastern states of Pernambuco (2.7 prisoners per official spot) and Alagoas (2.6 prisoners per spot), followed by the Federal District of Brasilia (2 prisoners per spot). While these figures are worrying, given the implications of overcrowding on levels of violence behind bars, they should come as no surprise, given the astonishing rate at which Brazil continues to jail people.
Last year, the total prison population stood at over 832,000, a record high. This is up 51% over the last decade and 250% in two decades. In the Americas, Brazil's incarceration rate is surpassed only by El Salvador, the United States, and Panama.
An August 2022 visit by judicial authorities to Pernambuco to understand the reasons for its lack of prison spaces found shocking conditions. "In addition to overcrowding and subhuman conditions in prison units…family members face upsetting inspections and spend nights sleeping at the doors of these establishments to take food and personal hygiene items to prisoners," reported Brazil's National Council for Justice. It added that the Pernambuco judiciary likely did not have the capacity to face these challenges, speaking to the need for far broader reform.
A mass of prisoners held together at a Pernambuco prison. Source: Brazil Ministry of Justice
Rio Grande do Sul, a state that ranks among the least violent in Brazil, has also seen its fair share of problems. One of its solutions to overcrowding in prisons was to allow more prisoners, especially those in pre-trial detention, to remain in police holding cells. When these holding cells predictably also ran out of room, prisoners were found handcuffed to the steering wheels and doors of police vehicles in 2019. While a court decision promptly banned such methods, Rio Grande do Sul still lacked adequate prison spaces for almost 6,000 prisoners out of a state population of 40,000 last year.
The annual report did focus on some positives. In June 2022, Rio Grande do Sul launched a new government body dedicated to managing the prison population (Núcleo de Gestão Estratégica do Sistema Prisional - Nugesp), which promised to solve the overcrowding problem.
The impact of custody hearings, which allow for far more suspects to see a judge within 24 hours of their arrest, have continued to lighten the burden on the prison system, even with the introduction of remote hearings during COVID. A 2022 report by the Association for the Prevention of Torture noted that judges during custody hearings had been asking more questions about any mistreatment suffered by prisoners and that security personnel were less commonly accompanying defendants in the courtroom. It added that the digitalization of such hearings had actually improved access to justice in more remote parts of the country with "precarious police and judicial infrastructures."
Disappearances Up Sharply
From 2019 to 2021, over 200,000 people disappeared in Brazil, which comes at 183 people per day, according to the Brazilian Forum for Public Security. While around half of these were eventually found, "people cannot contemplate today the quantity of people who have essentially disappeared in Brazil," Samira Bruno, the Forum's executive director, told Agencia Brasil.
The largest proportion of those who go missing are children between 12 and 14 years old, including "teenagers who are victims of some type of crime, and end up kidnapped, victims of slave labor or sexual exploitation." The majority of the missing are also Black men. For Bruno, "this is another factor that leads us to prioritize these cases as they can include criminal cases such as homicides, kidnappings, and attempted homicides. And very often…these people are found later in ditches or clandestine cemeteries."
From 2021 to 2022, disappearances increased by nearly 15 percent nationwide and were up in every Brazilian state bar two. It seems likely that many of these were connected to violent crime. Disappearances were up 78.4 percent annually in the northeastern state of Amapá, which also saw the highest homicide rate in the country.
Amapá has been plagued by two major criminal economies. Two local gangs, Família Terror do Amapá and União Criminosa do Amapá, have been involved in a bitter feud over drug trafficking that contributed to homicides soaring by 87 percent year-on-year in early 2023. Illegal mining has also been a factor, as wildcat miners have clashed with security forces trying to clear them out.
This explosive mixture of high homicide rates, illegal mining, and drug trafficking gangs saw disappearances soar in other remote, northern states such as Roraima and Acre.
Roraima, a famed hotspot of conflict between illegal miners, Indigenous communities, and state forces, saw disappearances rise by 50 percent.
With the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva making a concerted effort to clear out illegal mining and improve security guarantees for Indigenous communities in the Amazon and neighboring states, there is hope that these areas may see homicides and disappearances drop in the near future.
The Legacy of Removing Controls on Gun Ownership
In July, President Lula signed a decree undoing much of the work done by his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, which allowed Brazilians to legally acquire firearms. Lula drastically lowered the number of guns a citizen can own from 30 down to six, passed stringent new limits on ammunition purchases, and ensured that hunters now need clearance from the country's environmental protection agency.
But it is likely too little, too late to undo the damage that has already been done.
The statistics gathered by the 2023 Brazilian Public Security Annual are alarming. From around 117,000 registered gun owners in 2018 before Bolsonaro relaxed gun ownership laws, Brazil now has nearly 800,000. The list of registered firearms climbed from 630,000 to 1.5 million. An additional 1.5 million have expired licenses. Ammunition sales have climbed 150%, with 420 million rounds of ammunition sold legally in Brazil in 2022.
The report lamented the fact that Bolsonaro's government had reworked caliber regulations, allowing members of the public to acquire 9mm and .357-caliber pistols, as well as rifles, that had previously been restricted to military use.
"Before you couldn't have just any weapon. You couldn't get a rifle. You couldn't just turn up...and buy anything," Bruno Langeani, head of the Sou da Paz Institute in Brazil, told Folha de São Paulo. "That was all removed."
A haul of over 50 weapons found at a house in Rio de Janeiro in February 2022. Source: Rio Police.
This policy allowed criminal groups to buy arms legally through people with no criminal record. Members of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) in São Paulo have been arrested in possession of semi-automatic rifles which were bought by using a legal permit known as a Collector, Shooter and Hunter license (Colecionadores, Atiradores e Caçadores - CAC).
The impact of these weapons will likely be felt for decades to come. "Firearms are very durable and, if they are well-maintained, can continue working for decades. The country continues to suffer violence committed with firearms made in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s," the report found.