Booming Brazil struggles to get a grip on crime

Fri May 9, 2008 4:23pm EDT


(Adds Friday's police raid in a slum)

By Stuart Grudgings

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 9 (Reuters) - Stretched out on a beach framed by the sparkling Atlantic Ocean and a violence-plagued slum in the background, Pedro Mena Barreto speaks of crime with a sense of hopelessness that is common in Brazil.

He remembers when he could leave his windows open at night and hear the birds in the forest behind his apartment in Rio de Janeiro's beach district of Leme. Now he is kept awake by gunfire between gangs fighting for control of the drug trade.

"You need to have drastic measures, but justice here is soft and slow," said Barreto, a 76-year-old doctor who was sunbathing on the beach near Copacabana, not far from where gang battles have terrified residents in recent days.

"I don't see anything that's going to solve this."

When police intervene, their raids in the slums often add to the climate of insecurity. On Friday, police shot dead seven suspects in Rio's Costa Barros suburb. Rights groups say summary executions are frequent in such operations, while innocent people often get wounded or killed.

Despite President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's achievements in nurturing a strong economy and social programs that are lifting millions out of poverty, crime remains a stubborn problem on which his government has made little impact.

After Brazil's economic policies received an international seal of approval with investment grade status last week, former union leader Lula said he wanted foreigners to put more money into factories to create more jobs.

But analysts say crime is effectively a tax on such investment in many parts of a country that has one of the world's highest murder rates and where there are more private security guards than police.

The Institute of Applied Economic Research, a government think tank, says that criminal violence cost Brazil the equivalent of 5.1 percent of its GDP in 2004, including lost income and private security measures such as the armored cars popular in big cities.

Its study estimated that 24 million crimes were committed in 2003, but only 28 percent of them were reported to police, who are poorly equipped and often accused of corruption.

"A lot of people are afraid of reporting crimes because they don't have confidence in the police -- you don't know if the police are going to accuse you," said Christiane, a teacher who said she has witnessed two gun murders in her north Rio neighborhood and who didn't want to give her surname.

SAO PAULO AHEAD

A short-lived national campaign against guns helped push the rate down for two years after 51,043 people were murdered in 2003, but the numbers are on the rise again despite the healthy economy, according to sociologist Julio Jacobo who tracks violence in Brazil for the Latin American Technological Information Network.

Lax enforcement of sentencing means that murderers sentenced to 18 years often walk free after about three, said Ib Teixeira, a researcher and writer on crime.

"Killing a person in Brazil has the same value as killing an insect," he said.

In the latest example of what critics see as a culture of impunity, a man convicted for ordering the murder of U.S. nun Dorothy Stang in the Amazon in 2005 was acquitted on Tuesday in a decision condemned by rights activists and by Lula himself.

John Fitzpatrick, a political analyst and long-time Brazil resident, said disrespect for the law is rife in Brazilian society and shows little sign of changing.

"Literally every single day there are stories in the newspapers that the laws have been broken by the very politicians who have made them or by the police who are supposed to be enforcing them," he said.

After nearly 5 years in office, Lula last year launched a crime prevention plan that will invest 6.7 billion reais ($3.9 billion) over 5 years in training police and fighting corruption, starting with 11 big cities.

It is a rare federal initiative in a country where crime has for long been treated as a problem for state governments.

The only state where violence has steadily fallen is Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic engine, where outrage over crime in the late 1990s resulted in steps such as stricter alcohol and gun controls and more investment in police and prisons.

But there has been little change in Rio's murder rate of around 40 per 100,000 residents and many towns in near lawless parts of Brazil, especially in the Amazon, have more than 100 killings per 100,000 people -- rates comparable to war zones.

"If you take out Sao Paulo from Brazil you can see that there is no national drop," said Tulio Kahn, head of analysis and planning at Sao Paulo state's public security secretariat.

He said that Sao Paulo's annual security budget of about $4.8 billion currently dwarfs the less than $250 million in similar funds the government hands to all 26 states each year. (Additional reporting by Stephanie Beasley and Pedro Fonseca; Editing by Kieran Murray)