Foreign tourists and businesspeople do not need to be worried about violent crime when they come to Brazil, experts say – despite what the gruesome death of an Ontario man in Sao Paulo on Saturday night might suggest. Statistics show that foreigners are rarely the victim of any crime more serious than mugging, those experts say – but Brazilians have plenty to be worried about, including a deteriorating international image months before the country is to play host to the first of two huge international events.
Dean Tiessen, a father of four from Leamington, Ont., was killed in an apparent car-jacking on Dec. 7. He was in Brazil to explore opportunities for his agricultural business, and only moments before his death had been posting enthusiastically on social media about the beauty and opportunity of Brazil.
A truck driver who was the victim of robbery minutes before Mr. Tiessen and his colleague were attacked, apparently by the same perpetrators – and who called the ambulance when he heard the shots that killed Mr. Tiessen– told Sao Paulo media on Monday that one of the attackers said to him, "I'm just dying to kill someone."
It is difficult to extract any solid information from Brazilian crime data, because it is collected separately in each state; few of these have strong records in monitoring, but do have incentive to spin statistics.
Ignacio Cano, an expert on public security with the State University of Rio de Janeiro said that in the state of Rio – home base for next year's World Cup and the 2016 Olympics – it is clear that murders are rising, up 38 per cent in August, 2013, compared to a year earlier, to 406 – and every other kind of crime is up too, except deaths caused by police.
"Foreigners and tourists aren't the targets of violence, generally – for robbery, yes, but not for murder. In general, poor people in poor neighborhoods are the ones that suffer more directly."
Rio has won broad praise for a program known as pacifacacao, pacification, using dedicated police forces to retake the slums known as favelas – epicentres of violent crime and drug-trafficking – and installing some measure of public security. But five years into the pacification, it appears to be wearing off, Mr. Cano said. Media here are full of "audits" that find criminal gangs once again fully active in areas the city government claims as under its control.
The decision to focus pacification on those areas closest to where tourists go and sporting events will be held – but neglect vast sprawling favelas around other parts of the city – meant inevitably the problem would not be eliminated, Mr. Cano said.
The city says in its defense that it is recruiting and training police as fast as it can but does not have the resources to pacify all areas at once.
Mr. Cano said the overall picture merits a bit of sagacity. "The impression might be that we have a crisis, but a couple of years ago everything seemed to be wonderful. So people are making assumptions very quickly. It wasn't that wonderful before and it isn't that terrible now."
Sao Paulo will have fewer homicides this year than last, but while murder rates are falling, rates of violent robbery are not – and this year's murder statistics won't look so bad because last year the police and prison gangs essentially fought a civil war in the streets, noted Guaracy Mingardi, a former deputy national secretary of public security.
He said that the data would seem to suggest that the number of weapons in circulation is rising – and Brazil is reaping a grim harvest in that today's criminals are young people who have grown up with constant exposure to extreme violence, and thus are inured to killing in a way that former robbers or dealers were not, he added.
Mr. Mingardi said that Brazil lacks an honest public conversation about security and crime because anti-crime policies and their reputed success have become such important political currency that no government, state or federal, is willing to admit existing policies may be failing.
States make their own public security policy, he noted – but it will fall to the federal government to try to persuade the world that Brazil is safe. Two weeks ago, a phenomenon called an arrastao, or dragnet, made an unwelcome appearance on Rio's famed Ipanema beach: hordes of young men swooped down on sunbathers, in a mass robbery that engenders total panic. On subsequent weekend days – despite drizzle that kept nearly everyone off the beach – the Rio state and city governments moved in so many police it looked like a military parade.
Mr. Tiessen's death may have been a rare case, Mr. Cano said – not that that will reassure many foreigners – but there is heightened awareness here that there must be an intensive response before the World Cup. "Tourists don't need to be afraid – but after they leave, we will still have a problem, until we tackle structural issues like the prison and justice systems."
Manuela Andreoni is a freelance contributor.