Whose death is it, anyway?


Afinal, quem morre?



Gláucio Ary Dillon Soares

Sociedade Brasileira de Instrução, Iuperj. soares_7@terra.com.br



Few violent deaths in Brazil resulted from acts of war, internal or external, since adequate statistics began to be collected in 1979. Almost all resulted from accidents, homicides and suicides. They are, nevertheless, violent and the extent of casualties surpasses that of minor wars. From Independence to the end of the Vietnam war, 627 thousand American soldiers died in wars. This is roughly the number of Brazilians victimized by homicide alone from 1979 to 2001, a much smaller period. All violent Brazilian deaths (including accidents and suicides) during this short period equal three times the aforementioned number of American soldiers. Furthermore, homicides grew at a predictable rate, as a linear function of time. There are no detectable changes related to major marks in the international scenario, such as the Cold War. The correlation with globalization depends on how you conceive and measure it. The steady, linear, growth of the homicide rate suggests that any phenomenon that grew or declined is an explanatory candidate, which help us little.

This explains why violence in Brazil is conceived as internal, falling within the legal jurisdiction of the police rather than the military, although during the dictatorship the military placed all police forces (and firefighters as well) under their authority, as "auxiliary forces". Political deaths during the entire dictatorship were infamous and painful, but they were comparatively few: more people die murdered in a week in Brazil than in the hands of the military throughout 21 years of dictatorship.

All of this may change, of course, as it did in the United States after September, 11, 2001.

The origin of violent deaths has conceptual consequences and the search for explanations has followed a very different path in Brazil and possibly in most of Latin America. Analysis of available data – of different nature – points to firearms, drugs, as well as age, gender, race, social class and many other variables, some of which have been found to be associated with homicide elsewhere. Spatial analysis shows a concentration in large metropolitan areas and, within them, in the poorer sections, particularly favelas, vertical or not.

Why urbanization? To understand its role we need to recover the value of time as a sociological concept. In less than half a century Brazil added more than the total population of Spain, Austria, Denmark, Scotland, Wales and England together.

Time is of analytical relevance, and I don't mean time in the traditional Marxist historical sense, nor, à la Becker, that human time has economic value. I mean time as an analytical dimension; lack of time, time scarcity, in a modified Althusserian sense, brings about an interdit, a prohibition, in the sense that certain goals and objectives, such as nation, city or social building could not go beyond minimum levels. To provide housing, streets, water, sewage, schools, to train teachers, hospital and trained doctors, nurses and other personnel for an additional population equivalent to the present population of six countries was an impossible task to accomplish in forty years, made worse by the underdeveloped nature of the economy at the start. The same absolute population growth spread over two centuries would generate far less disruption. Population growth cum rapid urbanization meant the growth of urban populations far outpaced any expansion of resources.

To illustrate, let us take two large Brazilian cities currently experiencing a high homicide rate, São Paulo and Recife, and let us compare their growth with that of two European capitals which had similar populations sometime in the last fifty years, Madrid and Prague.

In 1940, São Paulo and Madrid had similar populations; in 2000, one could fit the population of three Madrids in São Paulo. In twenty years, São Paulo added close to ten million persons, rounding. This and other population explosions gave a new meaning to old concepts, such as urban and city. In a fast growth context, they do not mean more of the same; they mean more of the different. They are not similar cities with different sizes; they are very different cities. (Figure 1)

The comparison between Recife and Prague points to the same direction. In 1950, Recife's population was a bit over half that of Prague's; in 1980, Recife surpassed Prague by ten percent; in 2000, Recife's population was 283% that of Prague's. In twenty years, Recife grew close to two Prague's. (Figure 2)

Madrid and Prague were selected because they also differ from each other: the former is still growing, whereas Prague's population was stable from 1980 to 2000. São Paulo and Recife are among the most violent metropolitan areas in Brazil. The comparison is simply designed to illustrate. Murders in Madrid, 63 in 2003 and 44 in 2004 are small by São Paulo standards. In São Paulo, homicide rates went from from 17.5 in 1980 to 53.9 in 2002. Madrid's homicide rate is less than two per 100 thousand. In Prague, the first two months of 2003 saw four homicides. The entire Czech Republic has less than 300 homicides a year, yielding a rate circa 3 per 100 thousand; Recife's rate is about 84.

Is the speed of urbanization one of the contributing factors? With multi-causal phenomena it is impossible to prove it, but evidence does not disprove it. The theory that supports this hypothesis also predicts that population density and immigration (from other municípios) should correlate with homicide rates. Cross-sectional analysis of all Brazilian municípios support this hypothesis.

Crime control policies do not reverse social processes, but reduce their consequences. In Brazil violent death rates are sensitive to preventive policies. There are several examples and I quote just a few. In the Federal District, road fatality rates per 10 thousand vehicles were cut by half during the implementation of a preventive program, Paz no Trânsito. They stopped falling when a new government discarded the program. The State of São Paulo implemented a package to reduce homicides, after which systematic reductions in the homicide rates were achieved and are continuing. Diadema is an interesting case because it was one of the most violent Brazilian municípios. A different package of measures, which included limits on liquor sales near "death spots", moved it far away from this non-enviable distinction. Beyond the frontier, Bogota and Medellin are outstanding cases of violent deaths reduction programs.

With the existing knowledge base and political resolve, lives have and are being saved. To expand this base and save more lives is our common goal.

ABRASCO - Associação Brasileira de Saúde Coletiva Rio de Janeiro - RJ - Brazil
E-mail: revscol@fiocruz.br