Rio de Janeiro: 'It's a deep injustice that gun violence is tolerated'
by Robert Muggah
August 20, 2015
I live and work in a country where over 70% of reported homicides are a result of guns. In my neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro, the murder rate is less than two per 100,000, which is well below the global average (pdf). Yet a favela around the corner from my apartment has a homicide rate that’s 10 to 20 times higher. So at night I hear the crack of gunfire echoing across the city; it’s disturbingly routine.
I’ve spent the last couple of years running an NGO trying to get people to think about ways to reduce gun crime, which is one of the big problems in Brazil. Without these reductions in violence it’s very difficult to move forward at the most basic human level, and in spite of impressive reductions in poverty in last 15 to 20 years, the violence has got worse in Brazil.
I’m hopeful that it is possible to reduce homicide, but there are major challenges. In my “think-and-do” tank we see ourselves as a connector, mixing high-level decision makers with grassroots groups. Igarapé is an indigenous Brazilian language word for “little river” or “way of the canoe” – we’re a channel. One day we might be meeting with a former president, the next day we might be working with an ex-gang member in a favela downtown trying to understand what his intrinsic motivations are for acquiring a gun. The key is to get behind the statistics and understand what is really going on.
As I’m constantly immersed in the data of violence, I’m crunching the numbers as I go about my daily routine. I think, what are the odds of gun-related incident here, a knifing there, an encounter with a militia member somewhere else? The empirical reality is, when I’m in my neighbourhood I may as well be in Geneva. But when I’m working in the poorer north or west zones, my risk calculation changes.
There’s a cold calculus that comes with mapping murder. But it’s impossible not to be emotionally affected. After all, killing is the ultimate violation of the most basic of human rights – the right to life. To me it’s a deep injustice that this kind of violence is tolerated in a place like Brazil. Everyday there are stories in the news about, almost invariably, a young black man being killed.
Security should be a public good, but it rarely is. When I get up in the morning and take my car out the driveway, I look both ways, not for other cars but because of the possibility of being car jacked. I drive down the street and I’m aware that there may be a stray bullet. It just becomes routine. For me that’s unacceptable, and that informs and drives the work that I do.
It’s remarkable how violence and its avoidance are woven into the daily fabric of Rio. On entering a favela there’ll almost inevitably be a young man wearing a baseball hat, with a 9mm stuck in his waistband; yet these streets offer a window into the soul of the community. There’s the smell of sewage interspersed occasionally with the most gorgeous smells of bread or stew. And because of the density of the buildings you immediately have the sounds of people talking, shouting, laughing, and of television and radio.
But there’s another more ominous feeling of the código do silêncio, the law of silence. In favelas where the drug traffickers still have control there is this sense of fear. People are reluctant to speak to you, and may not want to see an outsider. This is a huge impediment to my work as a researcher, but also to activists, journalists, teachers and healthcare providers. But only by going and visiting these hotspots and talking to the people are you able to understand the conditions of violence they face. It can be very dispiriting because you realise they’re caught in situations that were not their making.
I’m aware of how often we demonise and stigmatise people, we look at perpetrators as perpetrators, people who commit crime and therefore should be punished. But when you start peeling back their stories, what I’ve found is that they’re not just perpetrators, they’re often victims. They’re often survivors.
Feijao, which means bean in Portuguese, was a well known trafficker in the city in the 90s and early 2000s and he was shot a few times by the police. He was celebrated as a Robin Hood-type character. I got to know him as both a trafficker and later on as a community organiser. He managed to exit from his life of drug trafficking.
Today’s criminal could be someone who could help disrupt violence down the road. They represent the hopes and dreams and frustrations of these communities. They’re people who, if properly supported, could help disrupt violence. When I look at the different experiences around Latin America, where we’ve seen reversals from violence to peace, I see hope.