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Police, seen working against gangs in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday, were responsible for 11,000 citizen deaths between 2008 and 2013 -- the most in the worlds, according to a non-governmental report

Leo Correa/AP

Why, when so much else in Brazil is getting better, does the rate of violence – particularly murders by guns and at the hand of police – remain so stubbornly high?

That's the question at the forefront of public debate here, spurred by a confluence of events in recent weeks.

The Brazil Public Security Yearbook, released recently, reported that 53,646 people were killed in 2013 – one person every 10 minutes. That is a substantially higher rate of civilian death than found in Afghanistan (2,959) or Iraq (8,868) in the same period.

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And the data show that, far from solving the problem, Brazil's police are a critical part of it. They killed more than 11,000 civilians between 2008 and 2013 – an average of six people a day. And in the first nine months of this year, police killed 478 people in confrontations, twice as many as during that same period last year.

"It's extremely worrying: The evidence is clear that we have much more than an epidemic, there is an endemic scenario of high violence rates in Brazil," Renato Sergio de Lima, a co-author of the report, which is put out by a non-governmental agency called the Brazilian Public Security Forum, said in an interview.

"We're not only killing more people, we're undermining our own development, decimating our own young population and working against our own competitiveness." The report says violence cost Brazil 5.4 per cent of its GDP in 2013.

While the forum has publicizing the death statistics for years, they caused an unusual level of despair and debate this year – perhaps because Brazilians have growing expectations of security as the country becomes rapidly more developed. And those who are disproportionately most victimized by violent crime – people who live in the periferia, low-income areas on the edge of big cities, and in favelas – are those experiencing the most rapid change and who feel newly enfranchised as citizens.

Even police were forced to address the issue this year.

"It's a perverse brutality cycle we have to change," Colonel Ibis Silva, who recently took over as interim police commander for the state of Rio, the country's most violent, told O Dia newspaper. "Violence is compromising our future. It's barbaric."

Amnesty International has launched a campaign in Brazil called "Young, Black and Alive." It calls on government to design new policies and take "concrete action" to reduce the killing of young black Brazilians: 77 per cent of those between the ages of 15 and 29 murdered in 2012 were black, although they make up only 53 per cent of the population as a whole.

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Public defenders in Sao Paulo, meanwhile, have appealed to the United Nations to pressure the Brazilian government to do a "thorough investigation" into a recent police shooting that left four teenagers dead. They say their attempts to pursue justice for the victims have been obstructed by the body that is meant to investigate police misconduct.

Rafael Lessa, co-ordinator of the Human Rights Group at the State Public Defenders Office in Sao Paulo, said their attention was called to the case after horrifying pictures of the dead youths, apparently taken by the police officers themselves, appeared on a blog dedicated to glorifying the work of the brutal police special forces in the state.

They have never asked for UN intervention before, Mr. Lessa said, but the wide distribution of the pictures – some of which were sent to the families of the dead teens – and the refusal of police to provide access to forensics left them no choice.

"Of course, police violence will always happen here and there, but this can't be the rule like it is here," he said. "We inherited this problem from the dictatorship. The police institutions are very closed to new ideas, that's why they take a while to embrace the improvements we had during these 25 years of democracy. But we should be in another level by now.… We should have reduced these numbers of violence already."

He said the federal government must make it the law that police killings are not classed as "deaths during resistance" but homicides, like any other.

Mr. Lima, the researcher, described confusion at every level of the public security apparatus about its role. "The law says who does what but doesn't say what law and order is – some people say it's arresting criminals and that's it. Other people say it's guaranteeing rights– it's a citizen's security," he said. "Is it defending the interest of the state or guaranteeing peace and defending people's rights?Governments don't know and so they leave the police to take care of it – but the truth is they are sent out into the streets with their guns and they don't know what they're doing."

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Col. Silva, in his interview as he took over Rio, concurred that police too often operate on war footing. "That's why our slogan is humanization," he said. "What happens when the logic is war? You dehumanize yourself, the moral grounds are shaken, and no one can tell what is right or wrong."

With a report from Manuela Andreoni

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