Brazil has announced a new national security program to counter organized crime amid a spike in violence. But the nearly $174 million plan rehashes many previously ineffective strategies.
Brazil’s Justice and Public Security Minister Flávio Dino presented on October 2, the first major anti-crime program since President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s return to power in January.
The new plan revolves around five axes: raising the efficiency of the police; improving interagency security cooperation; bettering information sharing among authorities; improving the efficiency of the judiciary; and fortifying the country’s points of entry. For this, authorities have allocated 900 million reais (around $174 million) across three years.
The plan comes amid continued violence in the states of Bahia and Rio de Janeiro. Four homicides are committed every day in Salvador, the capital of Bahia, as organized crime groups fight to control trafficking routes. The police have mounted a militarized response, and at least 72 people were killed in clashes with the police in September.
Rio de Janeiro has long been home to some of the country’s most powerful organized crime groups, such as the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV) and the Pure Third Command (Terceiro Comando Puro – TCP). Images of criminal groups training as insurgents have recently come to light, and in September criminals set off a grenade on a bus, injuring three people.
Bahia will receive 20 million reais ($3.9 million) to strengthen security institutions plus 23 million reais ($4.5 million) to combat the violence, bringing total funding sent to the state in recent years from the National Fund for Public Security (Fundo Nacional de Segurança Pública) to 168 million reais ($36.2 million), according to the media outlet, O Globo. Rio de Janeiro will receive reinforcements of federal forces and 95 million reais ($18 million) to build new maximum security prisons.
Brazil’s federalist system places responsibility for public security in the hands of state governments. But a lack of information sharing between states, and state-specific security operations, have hampered the effectiveness of efforts against organized crime groups that are often multi-state or nationwide threats.
“We’re completely fragmented,” Leandro Piquet, a crime and violence expert at the University of São Paulo, told InSight Crime. “It’s very difficult for police to investigate problems as complex as organized crime without proper tools and integration with other state-level authorities.”
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Though a massive bill, previous major spending projects have failed to curtail organized crime in Brazil. This plan makes similar miscalculations, ignoring many of the fundamental causes of crime, which will likely hinder its progress.
In 2021, then-President Jair Bolsonaro made a similarly ambitious investment of 722 million reais (nearly $140 million) in public security, including 28 million reais ($5.4 million) in Bahia for new equipment, technology, and training for state-level security professionals.
Still, organized crime-related violence in the country continued to rise, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Specifically, the killings of police, as well as homicides perpetrated by criminal actors, stayed largely consistent prior to and after Bolsonaro’s security plan was implemented. (See below)
What’s more, although the investment by the Lula administration is significant, much of the money is destined for problematic strategies. For example, the proposal includes plans for building more prisons, which, although counterintuitive, could worsen the country’s security situation, experts said.
The reasons for this are complex but are related to how perennially overcrowded and understaffed prisons in Brazil are exploited by organized crime to build up its forces.
“The main criminal groups in Brazil recruit their members from inside of prisons,” said Arthur Trindade, Council Member of the Brazilian Forum on Public Security (Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública) in an interview with InSight Crime. “So the chaos of Brazil’s penitentiary system — which is overpopulated and is poorly run — greatly worsens the violence and strengthens organized crime.”
New prisons may temporarily reduce overcrowding, but improvements are likely to be short-lived if Brazil continues its current strategies — especially its use of pretrial detention, which puts people who have not been convicted into gang-controlled prisons, according to Benjamin Lessing, an expert in Latin American security and professor at the University of Chicago.
“It’s like when they build extra lanes on highways in Los Angeles,” he said. “For a couple of days, there’s less traffic. [But] it fills up and before you know it, you’re back to where you were. So now you just have even more lanes of traffic. And something similar happens with building more prisons.”
Brazil’s most notorious organized crime groups, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV), both started as prison gangs in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, respectively. Recruiting within prison walls, these groups were able to expand throughout Brazil and internationally, while the violence they generated spilled into the streets.
“The gangs already exist, so they generally are going to end up controlling at least some of those new prisons,” Lessing told InSight Crime. “Gangs that are currently together will get separated … Each one will have more control over their particular unit and so you strengthen gangs in that sense.”
Lula’s plans to double down on investing in technology to increase security at ports and borders, combined with ramped-up efforts to seize criminal groups’ assets, may reduce organized crime’s profitability. But Brazil’s vast size and its constant demand for drugs means better technology must be combined with quality personnel.
“It’s obviously necessary to invest in technology,” said Piquet. “But we need men and women trained at the local level to be there when we need resources.”
Better oversight and anti-corruption reforms are vital, said Piquet: “The government is planning to put a lot of money back in equipment when, in my opinion, the problem is much more of integrity, corruption, (and a) lack of operational capacity.”
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