Dr Nancy Cardia works for the Centre for the Study of Violence at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Her work on urban violence in Brazil spans decades and she is a leading expert on the research of armed violence in Latin American. AOAV caught up with her in Brazil to find out more.
AOAV: What does the Centre of the Study of Violence actually do?
NANCY: The centre was formed 25 years ago. It was established in light of the Brazilian paradox of their being a return to democracy and yet having a continued presence of human rights violations in Brazil. Violations that were, at the time, being perpetrated by state agents or agents in collusion with citizens.
So we investigated and analysed this abusive use of lethal force that was being carried out in the form of lynching, execution and torture, and we tried to understand how we in Brazil continued to have this kind of scenario. We tried to understand how you can have such levels of state violence in a country that under normal conditions fits into the idea of a democracy, with numerous political parties, elections, a change of political power, a full democratic constitution.
Alongside this democratic system was also the fact that Brazil was one of the first countries, after Australia, to create a national human rights program. State governments, too, went on to develop their own versions of these programs. There was also the creation of a special secretariat for human rights. Every demand these organisations made was done to prevent the abusive use of lethal force by police.
These organisations, in this way, struggled for a legislative framework that was able to identify what torture was and what crimes justified it. They fought for greater disarmament. Overall, they have expended a great deal of energy in order to reduce the violence made by state agents and within society.
AOAV: Is Brazil a safer place now for its citizens?
NANCY: Yes it is. There is no longer a state policy of violence. However, it is far from perfect. You cannot say that the safeguards that have been institutionalised in the form of laws are universally applied. Abuses continue to exist in areas such as Sao Paulo in urban areas and in rural areas.
AOAV: Has there been a cultural shift in the public acceptance of state perpetrated violence in the past 25 years?
NANCY: If citizens are afraid of state violence their threshold of acceptance levels of such violence is lower as they primarily want to feel safe. The failure today is that the state fails to identify those perpetrators in the police and other state organisations who carry out violence. And the state fails, equally, to provide state prosecutors with enough evidence to allow the perpetrators to be prosecuted and serve time in prison. The level of impunity here is mind-blowing. This, in turn, leads people to despair. At the beginning of the 21st century there was a high level of homicide in Sao Paulo of about 60 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Throughout the first decade of this century, this number went down. It reached its lowest level in 2011 – a level of deaths being lower than 10 per 100,000. It fell in the state as a whole and in the metropolitan region.
We have been studying why it fell. In our studies we have contemplated all the variables as much as we could, but bear in mind we do not always have access to collect data. What we found is that when we went to the smallest territories, most of the variables as to why there was a reduction of violence that we see in the larger areas, such as better access to healthcare or higher employment, well it doesn’t really add up. It is hard to explain why there was a drop in violence.
AOAV: But are there dominant issues that have helped reduce levels of violence in Sao Paulo?
NANCY: We need to look at the statistics. There was a reduction in the number of youth deaths. Police confiscates arms and uses it for illegal purposes themselves. It is not a number you can trust. The quality of the data is faulty. Fall in unemployment, investment by the state, investment in sanitation and health. Why would investment in sanitation and health help?
AOAV: When the police are asked about reductions in violence they say things like there being a decrease in weapons, a rise in their own use of crime-stopping technology, a rise in the number of patrols. What is your reaction to this claim?
NANCY: The police have not provided the hard evidence to enable us to say ‘yes, this had an impact’. If they provided us with the data, such as changes in their patrolling and the impact that had on violence, then we could possibly believe them. But there is no available data on this. And they did no independent analysis of their policies.
But it is in everyone’s interest to do it. If the police have made some huge achievements in one policing area, then it could be of real benefit to other police forces who might follow. And if a new political party comes into power then they will also have to continue supporting and financing this policy as it has been seen to work. But nothing is proven, and so it is hard to learn what does and does not have an impact.
AOAV: What drives this lack of transparency?
NANCY: The word accountability doesn’t exist in Portuguese. Here in Brazil, you simply don’t have to be accountable. Legislation came in a few years ago to permit academics access to state information for the use of research. Following this, there was a 10-year long investigation that followed homicides from the entry to the morgue all the way to the sentencing in court. A huge piece of work. But it was decided that this information was not needed and the study was stopped.
According to the statisticians you needed 600 cases to prove trends. But they were only able to identify 197 cases. No one knows what happened to the rest of the deaths in the archives: were they burnt? Lost? No one can tell you what happened to these documents that simply disappear. The level of arbitrariness in the outcome of the cases is, therefore, mind-boggling. Cases where sentences have been passed down appear to have no logic to them. The system is, in short, poor.
AOAV: Have no state actors intervened to reduce this lack of transparency?
NANCY: Occasionally but not systematically. People do set up campaigns but they get tired and over time most citizen activism is lost. Every year, for instance, there was a contest for innovation in public management. Every year that state fought hard to encourage people from the criminal justice system to submit ideas. But nothing came of it.
AOAV: Are there any violence reduction projects in Brazil that you think are revolutionary?
NANCY: Yeah, the disarmament programmes that have been carried out here were a good thing, but the referendum on the sales of arms was a big set back. People were enthusiastic about the law and felt that the law would be enough to curtail the circulation of arms. But everyone underestimated the power of the arms industry in Brazil. The arms industry prepared themselves well for the referendum and they were aided in turn by the NRA in the US. They ran advertising campaigns that claimed that by saying yes in the referendum to reduce the sales of arms to individuals that the voter would be putting their personal security in the hands of the state. The pro- arms lobby asked – were you willing to do that? When the campaign started there was an overwhelming view in favour of prohibition of the sales of arms but this support was lost.
We have, over time, witnessed the start of many interesting innovations. For instance, we witnessed three separate attempts at community policing. The first was by the military police in 1991. But it was swiftly forgotten. By 1997 no one in the leadership of the military police could remember this initiative as having ever taken places.
There were media images circulating in 1997 of police killing people. To combat the bad will this was generating the Police here in Sao Paulo decided to go again for community policing. At first the projects were successful. The Police force even sent officers to Japan to learn from their police there.
But as soon as the programme began to take off, there were groups in the police force that started to undermine the initiative. Police commanders were changed and officers who were implementing the programmes were effectively exiled, sent out to pasture. This was done because the police themselves felt threatened by the reform.
We see this initial surge to do good falling by the wayside quickly again and again. For instance, a few years ago human rights training for the police was seen as being a very theoretical thing – a class room lesson. So the Red Cross here asked police in Europe to do human rights training for officers on the beat in Brazil. They designed a fantastic course, and a meeting was convened of the head of state police and a commitment was made. The Red Cross would pay for the training and Brazil would incorporate this into their regular training. This was a gentlemen’s agreement. So the Red Cross started sending officers to Brasília to learn and, at first it was a great success. Those police officers who took part in this hands on human rights training were themselves convinced this could work.
We at the centre did the external evaluation of the training and we saw it working. Those officers who had been trained would be able then to train others, and so it went on. But it, like other projects, fizzled out. The military police who tried to incorporate this training were, over time, ignored because the regular police thought this training was unnecessary.
There are other examples. The UK Government invested a lot of money, for instance, to train prison managers in Brazil. Their aim was to bring a more professional outlook into prison management, one that respected the basic principles of prisoners’ human rights. So three years was spent training managers in the state of Sao Paulo. Again, we did the external evaluation of the training. It was very high level: skilled people were involved, it was a very good strategy and revolutionary training was used. All in all it was a very dynamic exercise in problem solving. But, again, this institutional resistance to implementation of the programme then came in.
I never knew the meaning of the word conservative until we encountered the issues within the criminal justice system here in Brazil.
AOAV: What is the root cause of all this conservatism? It is just the Brazilian character or are there other factors at play?
NANCY: With complex problems it is hard to find simple solutions. What marvels me is thinking that in 25 years of working here we have seen a new generation coming in: they should have revitalised the institutions, but nothing. Even the new ones who come in are moulded by the old patterns. Why is this? Is it the selection process which filters out the progressive candidates? We still do not know. I think that to unravel this we would need to go in-depth into institutional analysis.
AOAV: Issues you have touched suggest a sort of post-colonial approach towards authority. Could some of the experiences that you have witnessed be applied to other postcolonial societies?
NANCY: Well, I don’t know, to be honest with you. We have been working on a more international basis. When we talk to people in Mexico, we see that a lot of our issues are very similar. This is also true in Southern Africa and in India. In South Africa one group has been working on violence for a long period if time, another has been looking at social issues and violence happens to have taken precedence. The one in India looks at urban settlement but the rate of people moving to urban areas is having an effect and they are becoming more concerned with violence.
When they describe their police then there could be some similarities. Police in Ghana are also showing similarities with Brazil. We haven’t researched this with hard evidence though.
Overall, here in Brazil, resistance to change has to do with political leadership. To be willing to change things, we need political courage. And political courage doesn’t exist in Brazil. To really change police forces, there needs to be drastic changes. But government here in Brazil is in power for really only three years (the last year is campaigning). This does not give enough time to introduce change. And as such, we have never had a governor in Sao Paulo who has tried to change things on a revolutionary level. They only ever try to do small things.
Did you find this story interesting? Please support AOAV's work and donate.