Expert Commentary

Homicide in Brazil: What journalists should know

An overview of violence in Brazil to help international political reporters who are covering the October elections

Brazil police
(Ben Tavener/Flickr)

The news of violence in Brazil seems endless: Drug gangs not only killing but decapitating their enemies during a riot at a prison in Manaus in 2017; the military taking control of security in Rio de Janeiro; the killing of a female councilor not far from Maracanã Stadium in March 2018.

The number of intentional homicide victims in Brazil rose 15.5 percent to 61,283 from 2012 to 2016, according to the most recent data available from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In absolute terms, it is the country where the most people are murdered. In relative terms, the rate of homicides per 100,000 people is 29.53, according to the U.N. data. (El Salvador, which recorded 5,257 murders in 2016, has the world’s highest homicide rate, at 82.84 per 100,000 people. In the United States, the rate is 5.35 per 100,000.)

Some 38 percent of Brazilians name violence as the country’s top problem, according to Portraits of Brazilian Society: Problems and Priorities for 2018, a survey of 2,000 people from 127 municipalities, conducted by the Confederation of National Industry. Candidates for Brazil’s presidential elections in October 2018 are aware of the widespread fear and are getting prepared to discuss an issue that will certainly be present in the presidential debates.

To help political reporters understand the problem of violence in Brazil, Journalist’s Resource interviewed journalist and scholar Bruno Paes Manso, author of Homicide in São Paulo: An Examination of Trends from 1960-2010. After covering crime for the daily newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo for more than 10 years, Paes Manso is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of São Paulo’s Center for the Study of Violence.  (Editor’s note: The interview was conducted in Portuguese, and Paes Manso’s responses were translated into English.)

The most dangerous cities 

If foreign correspondents want to tell the true story of violence in Brazil, they must venture into the north of the country, Paes Manso says.

“In Brazil the violence in Rio de Janeiro gets most of the international media coverage, but the most dangerous cities are in the Northeast region, the country’s poorest,” he says.

Of the 30 most violent cities in the world, 10 are in Brazil, according to Mexico’s Council for Public Security’s annual ranking in 2017, which reports that out of the 10 most violent Brazilian cities, 9 are in the Northeast region. The list shows Natal, Fortaleza, Vitória da Conquista, Maceió, Aracajú, Feira de Santana, Recife, Salvador and João Pessoa among the top 30.

“In these cities, the local drug lords have been receiving greater quantities of drugs and more weapons supplied by different large gangs from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro that have built wholesale operations nationwide,” says Paes Manso. “And as the local markets in the Northeast region are still very fragmented, the outcome is violence.”

An exception to the trend

São Paulo state, in the Southeast region, is a notable exception to the trend. There, the rate of homicides per 100,000 people fell from 64.8 in 2000 to 15.4 in 2012. “As it is usually the case, there are many causes that explain a fall like this one,” Paes Manso says. “The population grew older, and as most murders are committed by young males, that makes a difference. The police in São Paulo became more efficient and the judiciary became tougher.”

In 1994, the state of São Paulo had 32,842 people in its prisons, according to the Secretaria de Administração Penitenciária, the state department of corrections. In 2015, the number was 233,067.

Fewer criminals on the streets had an unexpected side effect. Equipped with cell phones, the drug lords began operating from inside the prisons. Putting them behind bars did not disempower them. It was from prisons that Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), a drug gang created in 1993, consolidated the market, Paes Manso says. “Without a competing drug gang, PCC avoided killings in São Paulo and expanded its power to all corners of Brazil,” he says.

Gang violence in Rio

Rio de Janeiro state seemed to be following a similar path until recent years. The rate of homicides per 100,000 people fell from 58.3 in 2002 to 24 in 2014. The fall was largely attributed to the community policing policy adopted by Sérgio Cabral, who served as governor of the state from 2007 to 2014.

There are three main drug gangs in Rio de Janeiro — Comando Vermelho, Terceiro Comando and Amigos dos Amigos. Before Cabral took office, they fought almost non-stop for territory. “Once police started to occupy favelas, the gangs agreed to slow down the fight,” says Paes Manso. (Editor’s note:  A favela is a shantytown located within a large city.)

Cabral was jailed in 2016 after leaving the governor’s office, convicted of corruption. When his successor, Luiz Fernando Pezão took over, the state was in a severe fiscal crisis. Without enough money, civil services collapsed and the community policing policy was negatively affected. Murder rates begin to rise again.

One of the most shocking murders took place in March 2018. Marielle Franco, an activist and Rio city councilor from a favela, was shot dead in her car. In a country with this track record, Paes Manso says he has no doubt violence will be one of the main issues in this year`s presidential election.


For journalists looking to learn more, here is a list of helpful sources and academic experts who have studied violence in Brazil.

The Atlas of Violence, a federal interactive database of Brazilian violence statistics published by the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA), a public institution. Daniel Cerqueira, a researcher at IPEA, oversees the database.

The Instituto Sou da Paz, a non-governmental organization focused on reducing the levels of violence in Brazil.

Ilona Szabó, co-founder and executive director of the Igarapé Institute, a think tank that generates research on security and justice.

Camila Nunes Dias, professor of sociology at Universidade Federal do ABC.

Alba Zaluar, a Brazilian anthropologist with an expertise in the anthropology of violence.

Ignácio Cano, professor at Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro and founder of the Laboratory for the Analysis of Violence.

Luis Eduardo Soares, former national security advisor and former professor at the University of Campinos. (He is one of the authors of Elite da Tropa, the book that inspired the film “Elite Squad.”)

Cláudio Beato, professor of sociology at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais.

José Luiz de Amorim Ratton Jr., professor of sociology at Universidade Federal de Pernambuco.

César Barreira, professor of sociology at Universidade Federal do Ceará and head of the Lab for the Study of Violence at the university.

Rodrigo Ghiringhelli de Azevedo, director of graduate studies in social sciences at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul.



About the author:  Eduardo Salgado is an executive editor at Exame, an economic and business magazine in Brazil, where he has worked since 2006. Prior to Exame, he was the foreign desk editor for the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo. During that time, he covered the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard Kennedy School and a master’s degree in Latin American studies from the University of London.

For some related reading, see our roundup of studies on violence against women crossing the border into the United States and our collection of research about prison population trends in the United States



The photo by Ben Tavener was obtained from Flickr and is published under a Creative Commons license. It was resized for scale.

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