Violence in Bahia

5,450 people were murdered in the state of Bahia in 2014. In terms of absolute numbers of deaths, this is the highest level in the country and far higher, for example, than São Paulo. Bahia’s capital, Salvador, is now the sixth most violent metropolitan city in Brazil according to the Federal Justice Ministry.

It is always important to try to understand what these figures actually mean in social terms: who gets killed, by whom, where, and why, are variables that require closer analysis. There is also plenty of scope for dispute about the methods used to compile statistics on crime and violence. All of that applies universally, not just to Brazil or Bahia. But Bahia’s state Public Security Secretariat does tend to question the way federal government agencies make their calculations.

This is because it repeatedly claims that its policies are working and reducing “intentional lethal violent crimes”. But even the military police themselves have not had a good year in terms of the number of protests over deaths resulting from police use of firearms in claimed self-defence. The response to the latest figures on violence was a stepping up of “ostensive policing” in Salvador in the form of “blitzes” in which the police erect road blocks so that they can check passing cars one by one. Blitzes cause considerable inconvenience when they are done at peak hours on major traffic arteries in a city that is grid-locked most of the time anyway. Although they do serve as a disincentive to drinking alcohol while driving and not keeping one’s vehicle, papers and tax payments in order, they do not seem to offer a very effective way of tackling violent forms of criminality, even if they do sometimes trap armed criminals and people with drugs or stolen vehicles. Although there is a lot of talk about the use of “intelligence” in Bahia’s policing, recourse to ever more numerous blitzes almost seems like an admission of defeat on this front. Effective actions based on reliable information on criminal networks and plans are not made easier by the dual structure of the police corporations themselves, based on the division between an investigative “civil police” and a military police force dedicated to enforcement and prevention.

Blitzes are the forms of ostensive policing that impact most of middle and upper class people. Although they often produce irritation, they also offer evidence that the state government is “doing something”. But other measures, such as stop and search (which tends to be racially profiled) and the installation of permanent police units in some socially disadvantaged communities affect the daily lives of poorer working people much more profoundly, yet without necessarily making their communities safer places to live. Poorer citizens are really the principal victims of Brazil’s insecurity problems. Nevertheless, more searching questions also need to be asked about whether current approaches are even having a positive impact on crime and insecurity from a middle and upper class perspective. Although drug-trafficking and the violence associated with control of drug retailing has the highest media profile, armed assaults are frequent throughout the city of Salvador and also seem to be resulting in the deaths of the victims with greater frequency than in the past.

For many people, the solution to what, according to public opinion surveys, is generally perceived as a mounting crisis of insecurity is “getting tougher on crime” through yet more repressive and violent policing, and sending yet more, and younger, people into Brazil’s already overcrowded gaols for longer periods of time. A recent poll suggested that 50% of Brazilians believe that “a good bandit is a dead bandit” (i.e. approve police extermination of criminals). But taking the poll results at face value, that means an equally large number of Brazilians do not approve of that kind of approach, which not only encourages the killing of people who are involved in crime even after they have surrendered and are not resisting arrest, but creates a climate in which extra-judicial execution can easily become the fate of anyone who lives in a poor community and finds him or herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Those of us who argue for a radically different approach to public security and structural reform of the police, and have criticised the pseudo-alternatives represented by Rio’s Pacificatory Police Units and Bahia’s Community Security Bases, sometimes find ourselves attacked in terms that resonate with the kind of language used against “communist subversives” under the military dictatorship. Although the number of Brazilians currently manifesting nostalgia for military rule as the country’s economic and political crisis deepens thankfully still remains relatively small (although strident), that regime’s legacy is still important in a contemporary public security regime in which police often see themselves as fighting “wars” against crime and whole communities are transformed into territories occupied by “hostiles” in the process. This is something that repressive policing that does nothing to address the real problems of residents easily turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What Brazil’s crime and violence problems really tell us is that more of the same doesn’t work if the objective is to make the country safer for all. Even without falling wages and growing unemployment, there have been new agendas of social exclusion behind the policing of the urban periphery in an era of property speculation and gentrification, global tourism development, and financialization. Rural populations face new challenges linked to mining and other sectors of the transnational extractivist economy. The chances of anyone walking safely down the street or across a country field are unlikely to be enhanced if the only response to the social challenges posed by current forms of capitalist development and crisis is state-sponsored legal and extra-legal repressive violence, accompanied by the growth of private security companies and privatized detention facilities, and linked to new processes of dispossession and humiliation.