Mar 18 2013

What is the crisis in public security in São Paulo?

By Dr. Nancy Cardia, Vice Coordinator of the Center for the Study of Violence of the University of São Paulo, Brazil.


large_3103442596After a decade of decline in homicide rates, in the last quarter of 2012 residents in São Paulo were surprised by what appeared to be a re-run of a bad film: daily reports in the media about a surprisingly large number of cases of homicide involving police officers as victims, cases of multiple civilian victims shot by masked men using heavy weapons and civilians being shot by the police, allegedly while resisting arrest.

This raised fears that prior achievements in the reduction of violence were being lost and that the city and the state had lost control over the rising violence. The fear in the population is that São Paulo would be returning to the very high rates of violence, particularly those of homicide that prevailed in the 1990s and the early 2000s. As mentioned above, São Paulo has for the last 10 years achieved major progress in the reduction of homicides. Other forms of violent crime also fell in a less dramatic way than homicide, but fell from the higher levels reached in the early 2000s. This was the case for: robbery, bank robbery, car robbery, robbery followed by death, and kidnapping. Two types of crime grew during that period: cargo hijacking and drug trafficking. The quality of the official data can be questioned but data from other sources confirm this decline (e.g., data from the health sector, surveys, etc.).

1996 2011 Highest rate and year 20111 2012 1a
Homicide Rate/100 thousand Rate/100 thousand
City 46,6 8,98 52,4 (1999) 1.019 1.212
State 30,3 10,2 35,4 (1999) 4.194 4.306
Robbery followed by death
City 2,5 0,8 2,88 (1999) 91 95
State 1,5 0,75 2,39 (1999) 316 309
Car robbery
City 289,8 357,4 590,2 (2000) 40.517 40.141
State 138,7 188,9 319,4 (2000) 79.190 79.483
Car theft
City 548,5 377,3 581,7 (1999) 42.778 40.291
State 268,7 205,6 323,7 (1999) 105.090 100.611
Bank robbery2 2005 2011
City 2,24 1,31 2,8 (2006) 149 106
State 0,85 0,6 1,12 (2006) 252 202
Cargo hijacking
2005 2011
City 34,4 37,6 43,4 (2009) 4.258 4045
State 15,9 16,7 19,1 (2009) 6.958 6.766
Drug trafficking 1996 2011
City 19,2 57,8 Continuous growth 6.563 7.264
State 21,7 84,9 Continuous growth 35.584 37.943
1: total number of cases
1a: total number of cases until November (included)
2: statistics for bank robbery and cargo hijacking available since 2005.

So far, the strongest indicators that the situation is becoming more alarming is the killing of police officers -whether in active duty or not-, multiple executions in public spaces by masked men and reports in the media that in some communities shops and schools have, on various occasions, been coerced to shut down due to threats from local criminals- the so called curfews imposed by groups to demonstrate power.

Official data revealed that 13 military police officers had died in action by the end of September 2012 in the state of São Paulo, which means that the official numbers of deaths of military policemen in action will exceed those for 2011 (16 deaths on duty). The media reported between August and November more than 100 deaths of military policemen, thus most deaths must have been off duty or ex-policemen (retired). Civilians killed by the military police while ‘resisting arrest’ totalled 369 persons (until the end of September) against 437 (total) killed in 2011.

Some journalists have attributed the growth of executions and the killings of military policemen to a ‘war’ between members of organised crime and the police. Following this line of explanation, the main organised crime group in the state ordered the killing of military police officers[1] in retaliation for the killings of some of their members by the police. In turn, military policemen were retaliating by executing suspects belonging to this organisation. This explanation gained strength when investigations by the judicial police indicated that some of the civilian victims had had their police records checked by military police officers shortly before they were shot. The cases are still under investigation and so far only allow for speculations on the real backgrounds. Until more is known about the identity of the victims and the circumstances in which both civilians and active and non-active policemen have died, it is not possible to support any particular interpretation of the situation.

Studies by the Center for the Study of Violence have shown that impunity for violent crime and homicide in particular is very high, which makes it difficult to be optimistic about being able to fully explain what this crisis is about. This also suggests that the decrease of homicide rates cannot be attributed to major improvements in clearing cases and trying and sentencing perpetrators. Detailed studies on the causes of this decline (again by the Center for the Study of Violence) have shown that there are multiple causes at work and improvements in social and economic conditions and in public services with more investments in very deprived communities, as well as changes in the demographic profile of residents, with less youth in the population, have much impact on the drop of homicides. Such improvements coincide with a growth of drug trafficking and cargo hijacking, which are very profitable activities narrowly related to organised crime. How can we make sense of a scenario in which successes in the area of public security coexist with the growth of organised forms of crime? This is our challenge and one which every now and then acquires more poignancy as crises emerge and make visible to the public the continued presence of very shady and dangerous undercurrents– what are the true conflicts between the police and organised crime, what truces are made and at what costs for whom?


Nancy Cardia holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science and is currently the vice coordinator of the Center for the Study of Violence of the University of São Paulo, Brazil.


Photo courtesy of:

Untitled” by João Perdigão (Flickr Profile:

License: Creative Commons (Share, attribution, Noncommercial, Remix)

[1]The preventive police are called military, it is the uniformed police force and has no relation to the Military forces.

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