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Portrayal of Crime in Brazil

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During these times, violence is ingrained in the culture of every society each and every day. For the country of Brazil, it seems that it gets more than its fair share of violence as the violence and crime rate is at an all-time high. In order to get a picture of how violent it has become in Brazil, in Sao Paulo alone, which is the largest city in South America, between the years of 1984 and 1996, there were a total of 69,700 homicides. If one looks at the statistics, that is 10,000 more deaths than the known United States casualties during the entire Vietnam War. During the years between 1979 and 1997, the homicide rate in Brazil effectively increased from 11.5 murders per one hundred thousand population to 25.4 which is almost double already.1 Somewhere along the road, the documentaries and movies that depict common day Brazil become indistinguishable. The soaring crime and the real-life violence  that we see in the big screen are no longer artistic expressions of what a director thinks is good for the viewers to see. The fact that the reality of corruption plays out so effortlessly is a cause for concern. Most of the reports and documentaries have little to no fiction in them. The big screen of Hollywood has become the venue for the airing out of that desperate wake up call for the Brazilian people to rethink their ways.

Violence in Brazil

            The crime and violence that has continued to fester in the country of Brazil has become renowned enough that movies and documentaries have come out of this country. You have Onibus 174 which is a movie about a criminal hijacking a bus in broad daylight. It happened on June 12, 2000. The young man who hostaged the people in the bus was Sandro do Nascimento. He terrorized his victims in broad daylight with SWAT people all over the bus. When the horrific episode was coming to an end and Sandro finally agreed to surrender, one policeman tried to shoot him, killing one of the hostages who was a young woman instead of the kidnapper.2 This incident caught the media’s attention and it was made into a documentary by Jose Padilha who used raw live footage of the whole incident and coupled it with interviews. The movie has definitely caught the attention of those who have been living under the shadow of naiveté.

            What is disconcerting is that when the kidnapper was already willing to surrender, a policeman decided to take control of the situation by simply firing a gun at the perpetrator in an attempt to neutralize him. Instead, a young woman was shot during the encounter and an innocent had to die. Perhaps this particular situation is simply a manifestation of how much the police units are quite paranoid and always on the alert in Brazil. Kingstone recalls the drive-by attacks of different gang members on police stations at night. He mentions that it is as if there was already a reversal of roles. In order to see the practical effect of the different attacks by gang members and criminals, Kingstone went to a small police station in the centre of Sao Paulo at about 1030pm. There would normally be about a few as three police officers on duty at that time, there were now ten heavily armed officers who were standing outside the police station like hawks, eyeing suspiciously any car that came past.3

            This is how rampant gang violence is in Brazil—the police are now always armed not with the motive of being proactive but with the motive of surviving the time that they are stationed to their post. It is very important that people who watch these movies understand that they are not simply watching a fictional tale that has been masterfully weaved by a foreign director who they have never heard of before. In essence, what they’re viewing is reality presented on a silver platter. They don’t get to be where the gang shootouts are nor do they get to be where blood is spilled—but it is true nonetheless.

            What is quite surprising about the country of Brazil is even though its own population increased to 65% between 1979 and 1997, the homicide rate also went up to 120% which was almost double the percentage of the population hike. In the 1990s, Brazil had the fifth highest murder rate in the world following Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia and Jamaica.1

Drug Trafficking in Brazil

            Another blockbuster movie directed by Fernando Meirelles regarding Brazil is Cidade de Deus or “City of God”. It is one of the most moving films that has ever been produced by a Brazilian simply because it cuts to the heart of the matter without sugar-coating anything. The message of the movie is clear and simple: “There is a drug problem in the country and it here is what you don’t see.” Like most gripping movies, it is the reality that clutches your heart and squeezes it ever so tightly.

            The City of God is the name of a city slum in Rio de Janeiro. The movie shows shocking scenes regarding the amount of violence that takes place in these streets day in and day out. With the way that Meirelles portrayed the truth in the streets of this city slum, the movie almost begs you to never go there. The movie portrays the lives of different little street kids who grow up together during the 60’s all the way up to the 80’s. They follow the lives of these children who eventually take the path of crime, violence, drug trade and other routes while trying to escape the slum.7

            The movie depicted senseless violence that even police officers would not enter the slums if they did not have a squad of men along with them. The movie revealed that almost all teenagers had a gun and they would immediately use if anybody even looked at them the wrong way. One of the kids that the movie followed was Buscape who became a photographer for the newspaper. This story was described and seen through his eyes. In this movie, he saw the different self-sufficient drug gangs, the no-go slums or the “favelas” which were in the center of the city. Meirelles, the film’s director mentions that “Drug dealers run the favelas”. “You never see the police in there. It’s like another country, and it’s getting to be a big problem.”5

            In this particular film, the director himself, who also happens to have been born and raised in Sau Paolo Brazil,6 confesses that he knows about the dangerous favelas that are run by the drug lords of Brazil. His film, upon completion, was shown to the Brazilian Cabinet during a meeting about the presidential election campaign. Meirelles remarks that the cabinet members don’t really get out too often and that is why he wanted to show his film to them. 5

            If one would like to know how worse the reality is, one need not look any further as 75 police officers in Rio de Janeiro were arrested in 2006 with the accusation that they were part of the drug trafficking cartel as well members of an organized crime group.4 The move was so monumental that more than 500 other police officers were deployed in order to arrest the culprits.

            It comes as no surprise the Brazilian police are regularly accused of corruption as well as brutality so the public only pushes this aside as one arrest which will not take out the root of evil in the Brazilian drug black market community.

            Kingstone reports that some police officers have been suspected to sell police uniforms to criminals. This type of corruption is truly widespread and it continues on and on as if the things that these groups were doing were simply a normal way to earn a living. The state police commander Hudson Aguiar mentioned that he was committed to seeking and weeding out the rogue elements in the police force.4

            It is quite saddening and disturbing that the best of Brazil’s police force is behind a significant part of the drug-trafficking in most of Brazil. It is important to note that the drug trafficking that happens within the country does not stop and probably will not stop if something drastic does not happen. The corruption and the violence that happens in true life is so real and tangible and yet when people like Fernando Meirelles depict what is really happening to the country the public chooses to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to Meirelles’ message.

            This incident in 2006 was one of the rare cases of arrests. Kingstone says that arrests are rare and prosecutions even rare than that so some of these police officers who have been arrested might have been apprehended but no one knows if some of them will go free.

Police brutality in Brazil

Aside from the rising crime rate and the drug trafficking that is happening in Brazilian soil, police have now become men of death instead of becoming men of justice. One sociologist by the name of Luiz Eduardo Soares, along with two police members of the BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais), André Batista and Rodrigo Pimentel, co-authored a book with the name of “Elite da Tropa”. This told people about the BOPE and described it as a “killing machine”.8 This was one of the author’s strongest points because the author provided different semi-fictional accounts of the daily routine of the BOPE as well as some factual information that was proven to be historical events based on the experiences of Batista and Pimentel. This was a very controversial novel as well because the Military Police actually reprimanded Batista because of his contributions and association with Eduardo.

            If there would be any particular film that would also epitomize police brutality in a prison, it would be Carandiru which was directed by Hector Babenco. The film told the story of the Carandiru Massacre that happened in one of the biggest prisons in Latin America. The 1992 massacre comprised of the death of 111 prisoners in the prison where 102 of those who died were killed by police. The infamous Sao Paulo prison was razed after a prisoner riot and slaughter in 1992.

            Carandiru tells some of the stories that occurred in Carandiru Penitentiary, which was the biggest prison in Latin America. The histories culminate with the 1992 massacre where 111 prisoners died, 102 killed by police. In 2002, one year before the release of the film, the Carandiru Penitentiary was closed. The movie tells about the different lives of the inmates that were incarcerated at the time.9

            The fact that policemen are able to inflict harm to unarmed prisoners without any justified cause is just one of the means that police brutality exists in Brazil. The different massacres and random killings that happen in Brazil are not only done by the criminals. It also seems that the police are also in it too. As one of the interviewees in the film Bus 174 explains, “The police think their job is to kill the bad guys.”2 Some of the perspectives of the policemen in Brazil are twisted in ways that are quite foreign to other countries. Instead of serving and protecting their countrymen, the police officers in Brazil are even the ones who are punishing the detainees.


            The portrayal of crime, violence, drug trafficking and many other illegal activities in Brazil by different authors and filmmakers are undoubtedly true. They offer a brutally honest peek into the lives of Brazilians and what their justice system is actually like. The corruption could be due to the living conditions or maybe even due to the clash of powers that Dowdney describes in the favelas in his book.10 What is clear to the public is this: these illegal acts and corruption will continue if no one steps in and enforces the opposite. It will continue no matter what because it is the culture that the Brazilian people have been weaned on. No matter how difficult it is, the Brazilian people should do something.


(1) Folha de Sao Paulo, 1999b ‘1,8% dos cidadoes concentram 51% dos homicidios.’ Folha de Sao Paulo, October 17: 3-3.

(2) Onibus 174, By José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda. Prod. José Padilha. Zazen Produções, 2002.

(3) Kingstone, S, Brazil police outgunned and angry, BBC News Americas, retrieved 9 January 2008, <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3260611.stm>

(4) Kingstone, S, Rio police held over drugs links, BBC News Americas, retrieved 9 January 2008, < http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6184497.stm>

(5) Carter, J, Editors Review: City of God, Collective, retrieved 9 January 2008, <http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/collective/cityofgod>

(6) Wikipedia.org, Fernando Meirelles, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, retrieved 9 January 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fernando_Meirelles>

(7) Cidade de Deus, By Fernando Meirelles. Prod. Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Miramax.

(8) Monken, M.H., 2006, ‘Livro sobre elite da PM do Rio causou punição’.

(9) Carandiru, By Hector Babenco. Prod. Hector Babenco. Sony Pictures Classic.

(10) Dowdney, L, 2003, Children of the Drug Trade, Ploughshares Monitor, Vol. 24, Issue 2, p. 9.

(11) BBC News, Troops to fight gang crime, BBC News Americas, retrieved 9 January 2008, <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6229483.stm>

(12) Controlarms.org, National Million Face Petitions Handovers, Controlarms.org, retrieved 9 January 2008, <http://www.controlarms.org/events/100days.htm>

(13) Huggins, M., 2000, ‘Urban Violence and Police Privatization in Brazil: Blended Invisibility’, Social Justice, Vol. 27, Issue 2, p. 113.

(14) Favela Rising, by Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary. Prod. Ravi Anne, Sidetrack Films, 2002.

(15) Wikipedia.org, 2008, Ross Kemp. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Retrieved on 9 January, 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ross_Kemp>

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