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Brazil: Uprising Exposes Human Rights Crisis

Benfica Uprising Exposes Human Rights Crisis in Brazil: An Arrow Aimed at the Heart of the Lula Presidency?

• Final count is 39 dead after the most recent of Brazil’s frequent prison riots.

• As in many other arenas, President Lula da Silva has offered strong rhetoric but precious little action regarding crime reduction, an area in which there has been little or no progress under his administration.

• Many prisoners in Brazil continue to endure horrifying conditions including extreme overcrowding, a constant threat of violence, including torture, and minimal or even nonexistent health care.

• The Brazilian public is increasingly ambivalent toward prisoners’ rights in the face of the country’s surging crime rate.

• Currently, the nation’s small police force cannot adequately enforce the rule of law, and a shortage of prison guards hinders the safety and security of Brazil’s jails.

• The Brazilian Senate recently passed legislation that allows the military to join the police in patrolling the streets in order to deal with runaway crime.

• Any long-term dependence on the military for policing cities as well as the countryside could pose a potential threat to human rights and democratic rule.

In 2002, Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was elected on a platform of exuberant promises of social reform, economic progress and political renovation, and was widely praised as Brazil’s first working class president to be elected since the fall of the military dictatorship 20 years ago. While his competition was more experienced, it engendered little enthusiasm in a country buffeted by economic disconformities and high unemployment. Lula, by contrast, inspired a sense of hope in a Brazilian population that was thoroughly fed up with the status quo. Yet, nearly two years later, much of that hope has disintegrated, and Lula’s glittering image appears sadly tarnished.

Crime Remains Unabated
One of the Lula administration’s most notable failures has been in the area of crime and human rights. Shortly after his election, Lula promised to “win the war against organized crime and drug trafficking,” yet Brazil continues to hold the second highest murder rate in the world and the sprawling favelas surrounding Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo continue to be wracked by gang violence on a daily basis. Human rights abuses in prisons are as prevalent as ever. For a president elected by the poor, Lula has done virtually nothing to enhance their safety and security: it is the poverty-stricken who are victims of the majority of the violence that continues to consume Brazil. Informed Brazilians view this epidemic of violence as regressive and a threat the consolidation of Brazilian democracy. Abroad, while Lula is fighting for more equitable free trade agreements and stronger international ties, Brazil’s abysmal record on crime is causing him to increasingly lose prestige among foreign leaders.

Yet while the international community continues to reel from the shock of Iraq’s Abu Ghraib, little attention has been given to the degrading, inhumane conditions that plague almost all of the prisons in one of Latin America’s largest and most crime-ridden countries: Brazil. These conditions were brought to the fore on May 30, when an uprising erupted in the Rio de Janeiro-situated prison, Benfica. When the riot was finally suppressed on June 1, 17 inmates were missing, while 38 inmates and 1 guard had died. Many bodies were badly mutilated, several of which were decapitated. A subsequent search of the prison exposed the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions that the prisoners had been enduring. Although Brazil has a notorious record of wretched prison conditions and frequent prison riots, the May 30 uprising was the bloodiest in over a decade.

Brazil’s rapidly rising crime rate has caused the number of inmates being housed to swell far beyond the capacity of its prison system; it was made to hold 180,000 inmates and now has expanded to accommodate 285,000. The country’s devastating crime rate has led many Brazilians to favor a harsh crackdown on anti-social behavior. A financially-strapped and chaotically administered federal government and an incompetent, corrupt police force have left Brazil hard pressed for a solution. Thus it has opted to take the dangerous step of implementing military collaboration in law enforcement, which critics fear could jeopardize Brazil’s already fragile democracy.

Repeating History
Brazil’s record of protecting incarcerate prisoners’ human rights is nothing short of deplorable. One of the main problems is immense cell-block overcrowding. Grossly inadequate sanitation, limited access to health services, an insufficient number of guards and persistent use of torture and other forms of violence also contributes to frequent prison mayhem.

According to members of the Rio-based human rights group, Global Justice, Benfica prison officials were warned weeks before the riots to end the policy of housing members of rival drug gangs in the same prison. Some speculate that gang members used the chaos of the uprising to settle old scores, contributing to the excessively high death toll. This bloodbath came just five weeks after 14 prisoners were killed and mutilated in a riot in another Brazilian prison.

An almost identical episode occurred at the extremely overcrowded Urso Branco prison in the state of Rondonia, in 2002, in which 27 prisoners died. Following this incident, the country’s human rights organizations made various recommendations to prison officials, which were ignored. Shortly thereafter, the prison, designed for 360 prisoners, was holding over 1,000, when another violent uprising occurred in which the inmates threw mutilated corpses out of windows.

The May 30 riot in Benfica is being called the bloodiest uprising since the infamous scandal in Carandiru jail in São Paulo, Brazil in October 1992, in which police were brought in to quell a prison riot and ended up massacring 111 inmates. Six years after that tragedy, Carandiru still held over 7,000 prisoners in a space designed for half that number, with a prisoner guard ratio of 28 to 1. One in five inmates in the health wing was HIV positive. Overcrowding produced frequent violence among prisoners, and medical treatment was still nearly impossible to obtain. In a symbolic gesture, Carandiru was demolished in 2002, but most of Brazil’s prisons still continue its legacy of horrid conditions and seemingly uncontrollable violence.

Political Stalemate
Brazil’s federal and state governments and its human rights groups continue to squabble over who is to blame for the abysmal failures of the prison system. The federal government maintains that prison maintenance is constitutionally the responsibility of state governments, while some critics have even insisted that the federal government should withhold funding from the states until they improve prison conditions in their jurisdictions. Currently, the Brazilian government has allocated a budget of 404m reais ($135m) to be used as an incentive for states to reform their prisons; however, the amount is so woefully small that only truly impoverished states will be likely to respond. Lula’s reluctance to withhold significant funding from the states has placed the burden of reform almost exclusively on them, which has produced very uneven progress throughout the country: São Paulo has significantly improved the quality and capacity of its prisons, while Rio de Janeiro has not, as evidenced by its record of four riots in 10 days this June, leaving dozens dead.

Soaring Crime Rates Generate Little Public Support for Prison Improvements
The lack of concern for prisoners’ rights among many Brazilians presents another problem for inmates, as the recent crime wave boom has left most of them apathetic to the plight of convicted criminals. Brazil claims the second highest murder rate in the world, while some neighborhoods in its cities hold some of the highest rates, with as many as one in every 1,000 citizens killed each year. Brazil’s rate grew from 13,910 homicides in 1980 to 31,989 in 1995, an astounding 166.92 percent increase. Most of the violence tends to occur in Brazil’s notorious slums, known as favelas, but many middle class citizens are beginning to feel unsafe on their own neighborhood streets as well. Even doctors, who are supposed to treat patients impartially, have demonstrated that they are not immune to the pervasive prejudice against inmates. One prisoner was told, “You can’t have anesthetic; prisoners don’t deserve anesthetic.”

Money laundering, smuggling, and arms and drug trafficking thrive in Brazil, especially along the borders of Argentina and Paraguay. The many forms of crime stem from extreme poverty and Brazil’s highly skewed system of income distribution. According to the CIA fact book, the lowest 10 percent of the Brazilian population accounts for a mere 0.7 percent of household income and consumption, while the highest 10 percent claims 48 percent. The World Bank claims that more than a quarter of Brazil’s population lives on less that $2 a day, 13 percent live on less than $1 a day and 49 percent of the population is classified as poor. The impartiality of its law enforcement is severely compromised by the class nature of Brazilian society; 95.7 percent of the public believe that low-income people would be automatically treated more severely by the police and the criminal justice system than those of a higher income.

Brazil’s overworked and underpaid police and prison guards are in a constant power struggle with heavily armed and powerful drug lords, whose access to corrupt officials is often plenary. Well-heeled criminals can easily operate their businesses from within the jails through smuggled cell phones, or by buying off officials. Through such arrangements criminal organizations usually can obtain a range of special privileges in prisons for incarcerated cartel heads, and in many, guards have lost de facto control of parts of their prisons to clusters of these inmates.

The power of these gangs is such that the authorities are incapable of asserting their fiat on a regular basis. Some of the poorest parts of Rio are virtually under the control of individual gangs and thus frequently become sites of gang warfare. Brazil’s poor economy and high unemployment rate produce idle, impoverished youth who turn to crime in droves, providing a constant source of manpower for established gangs. The police are clearly losing this battle.

Military to Take on Domestic Operations
These conditions affecting the country’s broken-down criminal law system compelled the Brazilian Senate on June 8 to unanimously pass legislation to allow the use of the armed forces to combat organized crime and institutionalized violence in the country. Even with the police brutality during Brazil’s pre-1985 military dictatorships still of recent memory, the average Brazilian generally supports this measure. Fundamentally, they do not trust their police to protect them from mounting crime, as one can see from the widespread use of private security services by high-income groups. A survey on police efficiency in Rio de Janeiro found that 26.8 percent of Brazilians believe that police performance is unsatisfactory.

The military has always been averse to taking on law enforcement responsibilities, and thus the government was forced to make concessions to gain its acquiescence. These included placing all operations under military instead of civilian command and allowing any human rights issues that may arise to be tried under martial law; these reforms raise the appalling prospect of a military tasked with domestic law enforcement that is entirely independent from civilian control.

In Rio de Janeiro, the military has been brought in to combat crime three times in the past three years. During the October 2002 presidential election, 11,000 soldiers, armed and equipped with tanks, patrolled the streets to prevent gangs from disrupting the voting process. These deployments, unlike what the Senate has just authorized, were under civilian command and civilian law, as in 1992 when the family of a victim killed in Rio de Janeiro was able to sue the army, which had been patrolling the neighborhood, before a civilian court.

Future Prospects
Human rights violations remain the greatest concern in employing the military to do police work. Consistently relying on the military to contain drug and gang wars and reduce crime does not get to the root of the crime problem and will only produce more overcrowding in the already congested prisons, which leads directly to riots and inmate deaths. There is also the danger that Brazil will become too dependent on the military instead of its state governments to solve its criminal problems, which, in addition to its current poor economic performance, could hurt its prospects for a sustained and vibrant democracy.

While the military may be necessary in the short-term to deal with its skyrocketing crime, Brazil must deal with the fundamentals of its poor law enforcement and extreme poverty before the cycle of violence and human rights violations can be escaped. The first step, experts suggest, is to employ a much larger and better paid police force to give its members a fighting chance against the heavily armed and powerful gang leaders and to lessen the appeal of corruption. Brasília needs to give more support to the extremely poor segment of the population who turn to crime out of desperation, and it can start by tackling the high unemployment rate and providing social protection for the unemployed and those below the poverty line. To reduce its vast economic inequality, Brazil must also improve its mediocre education system, thereby giving its people the ability to compete for jobs regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status. Instead of immediately turning to heavy-handed military procedures, Brazil might want to address some of these underlying causes of violence if it wants to provide its citizens with long-term security and for the country to escape from a fate that could eclipse all of its successes in other areas.

This analysis was prepared by Sandra Burke, COHA Research Associate

June 22, 2004


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