Skip to content

Sao Paulo Makes Headway Against Crime

MURDERERS KILLED 6,801 people last year in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, South America’s wealthiest region, which has a population of about 40 million. However bad that may seem, it was still a 22 percent decline over 2006. The downward trend is likely to continue, say officials, who are confident that they are now on track to cut violent crime to a significant low.

“Our objective this year is to get down to below ten murders per 100,000 inhabitants. That would be below the World Health Organization’s [definition] of an epidemic level of violence,” says Túlio Kahn, analysis and planning coordinator at the state government’s public security department. “In 2007, the rate was 11.8 so we are really close.”

If he is proved right, as many observers expect, São Paulo will have made a remarkable recovery. In 1999, armed robbery, home invasions, rapes, and kidnappings as well as homicides, had reached such high levels that the state was becoming ungovernable. Officials watched as rampaging criminals killed innocent people at such a rate that foreign investors began to pull back from the state, which is South America’s economic powerhouse and the regional headquarters for most United States and European corporations.

Recognizing the seriousness of the problem, the state government adopted a new crime prevention strategy starting in 2000.

What specific measures have led to the turnaround? São Paulo is tackling its crime problem by the book, says Giovanni Quaglia, Southern Cone representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “They learned the lesson of other cities: that it is important to have a good diagnosis of the problem and then to focus their energies on resolving the problem,” he says. “It’s the hotspot approach. Colombia has done it and so have Boston and New York City and Paris.”

Kahn says the first step was to collect and analyze sufficient data, using it to focus police resources in areas of acute violence. In some neighborhoods, the city forced bars to close early or banned alcohol completely. Data showed a correlation between homicides and heavy late night drinking in those areas.

The next step was to put about 50,000 additional officers onto the streets. They had previously been doing office jobs or guarding jails. The state replaced deskbound officers with specialized staff.

By increasing the number of police on the streets, they were able to improve the department’s arrest and incarceration rates. In the last quarter of 2007, state police made 26,172 arrests, an 11 percent increase over the same period of 2006, according to official statistics. Last year, more than 150,000 people were held in São Paulo jails.

But law enforcement and political officials did more than move bodies and reapportion existing resources. The state security budget was steadily increased to $4 billion, and it is now the second highest item after health spending. The state also increased police training and improved their equipment.

Kahn says a third factor was an aggressive campaign against guns. The federal government tightened gun control laws, making it a criminal offense to carry an unregistered weapon. As a result, civilian handgun possession has fallen to about 3,000 registered users, and the number of illegally held weapons has also plummeted, he says.

An additional feature of São Paulo’s campaign has been the involvement of civil society and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). These entities helped in drawing up and implementing the anticrime strategy. One of the most effective initiatives is a toll-free hotline operated by volunteers to receive anonymous tips that are passed on to the police.

The police have also become more aggressive in stopping crime, though that may not be part of the good news. Human rights groups have frequently accused Brazilian police of needless brutality, and the state’s own data seem to bear out this criticism.

In the last quarter of 2007, officers killed 102 people. That was 16 percent more than in the same quarter of 2006, which was 50 percent higher than in fourth quarter 2005.

Despite the progress it is making, São Paulo is still a dangerous place to live in or to come to as a visitor. Few have forgotten a murderous rampage one weekend in May 2006 by a gang called First Command of the Capital. Gunmen shot police officers, who retaliated by summarily executing suspects. About 140 people died during the violence.

Most middle- and upper-class residents live in high-security apartment buildings or residential compounds. And a former São Paulo detective says, “There is a terrible amount of corruption in the police. For instance, my commander had two helicopters. There is low morale. And don’t forget that we still have a huge amount of crime. We are not New York yet.”