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RIO DE JANEIRO/BRASILIA (Reuters) - A nightclub fire that killed 231 people is prompting Brazilians to worry that a culture of haphazard regulation and lax accountability stand in the way of achieving the country's lofty, first-world ambitions.
Brazil, Latin America's biggest country, has been praised by economists and investors over the past decade during a boom that made it one of the world's most promising emerging markets. That promise raised Brazil's profile in global trade and diplomacy and even helped it secure the 2014 World Cup of soccer and 2016 Olympics, major sporting events for which security and order are paramount.
President Dilma Rousseff, who wept at the impromptu morgue set up near the devastated nightclub in southern Brazil on Sunday, is fond of reaffirming Brazil's march toward the developed world. "Our country today not only has international recognition," she said in a speech last year, but also "the confidence of growing self-esteem of us Brazilians that we can transform it into a developed nation."
But for many living the day-to-day reality of Brazil's chaotic cities, crumbling roads and lawless hinterlands, the country's coming of age often seems elusive.
As Brazilians digested details of a blocked exit and other safety violations at the nightclub, fingers began pointing at lawmakers, regulators and an overall culture that critics say has long tolerated the bare minimum of compliance for everything from the rules of the road to building codes.
"The cause of those deaths wasn't anything complex," said Moacyr Duarte, an emergency management and disaster specialist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. "They were simple elements - administrative flaws, regulatory flaws, inspection flaws, planning flaws. They all led to tragedy."
The sentiment is echoed by everyday Brazilians.
"A tolerance of not following the rules exists here," said Flavia Rodrigues, a 34-year-old attorney in Brasilia, the capital. "This tragedy could have been avoided if only there were enough care."
To be sure, Brazil has no monopoly on accidents.
An eerily similar tragedy killed 100 people at a U.S. nightclub a decade ago and another, the following year, killed 194 in Argentina.
But Sunday's deaths, most of them university students, add to a tally of grim statistics that paint Brazil as a particularly dangerous country, even compared with many of its Latin American neighbors.
During the recent decade of economic growth, which led to a building boom, labor unions and human rights groups lambasted the government and construction companies for a spike in deaths and accidents at poorly regulated job sites. Nearly 40,000 people died at building sites in 2011, according to government data, compared with 35,000 in 2009.
And consider deaths on Brazil's crowded and poorly maintained roads. The country averages more than 18 highway deaths per 100,000 people per year, compared with only about 10 in high-income countries, according to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank. The tolls in nearby Argentina, Colombia and Chile average only about 13.
Most troubling, perhaps, are the country's high murder rates. According to United Nations data, Brazil averaged 21.7 homicides per 100,000 people in 2009. Although lower than some Latin American countries with longstanding social conflicts, the rate is multiples higher than in Russia (11.2), India (3.4), or China (1.0), other emerging economies with which it is often grouped.
After a recent surge of violence in Sao Paulo, the result of a turf war between gangs and police in Brazil's biggest city, 91 percent of those surveyed there feel unsafe, according to a recent report by the Ibope polling institute.
Making matters worse, murders, like many crimes in a country with a slow judicial system, routinely go unpunished.
A 2012 report by Brazil's federal public prosecutor compared the number of homicides that are solved in the country to those in developed nations. While only about 8 percent of Brazil's murders get resolved, the figure reaches 65 percent in the United States, 90 percent in Britain, and 80 percent in France.
The lapses underscore what is widely perceived to be a lack of accountability, even when deaths result.
"There is an overall culture of impunity," says Julio Jacobo Waiselfiz, a sociologist who keeps the "Map of Violence," an annual tally of crime statistics in Brazil. "That means murderers get away, that roads don't get fixed, and that rules and enforcement still don't keep up with the promise of economic growth."
On Monday, the debate took center stage as Brazilian media, local governments, and even foreign officials weighed in.
"In Sao Paulo, city hall lacks the resources to inspect major events," read a headline in the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, citing a study by the state legislature. The state government issued a press release touting ongoing training by local security forces for search and rescue operations.
Jerome Valcke, the secretary general of FIFA, soccer's governing body, on a Monday visit to Brasilia sought to dispel talk that the nightclub tragedy raised safety concerns for stadiums and World Cup planning already subject to heavy criticism because of widespread delays and cost overruns.
The fire "has nothing to do with soccer, has nothing to do with stadiums," he told reporters. Routine security rules for World Cup events, he added, would ensure "we can empty the stadiums in less than a few minutes."
Brazilians certainly hope so. Many recall the partial collapse of a stadium in Salvador, a World Cup venue in Brazil's northeast, caused by jumping by fans in 2007, killing seven and injuring scores. Or how three tall buildings in Rio de Janeiro crumbled one night last year, killing five people and scarring the center of Brazil's most popular city for tourism.
In a letter to O Globo newspaper, a geotechnical engineer recently warned that downpours during the ongoing rainy season could cause a repeat of cataclysmic flooding and mudslides in nearby mountains that killed more than 900 people in 2011. Though the regional and federal governments have invested in technology to alert residents of pending rains, he warned that little has been done to keep people from staying or building anew on steep hillsides dotted with shoddy housing.
"There is nothing natural about these disasters," wrote Alberto Sayão, the engineer. "The country can no longer bear the impunity caused by the leniency, omission and incompetence of the authorities."
Additional reporting by Eduardo Simões in São Paulo; Editing by Brian Winter, Todd Benson and Cynthia Osterman