Brazilians face violence as World Cup approaches

A request to remember Brazilians living in a climate of violence

April 8, 2014 | Web First
Gustavo Frederico | Special to Canadian Mennonite

A friend of mine who is an elementary school teacher in Rio de Janeiro described once how he and the students had to duck under the tables as they were caught in the crossfire.

In December of 2013 at a penitentiary in Maranhão, three men were decapitated in a riot. Allegedly, leader inmates would extort others to have sex with their wives during visits, and the three turned down the proposal. Because of the riot, the government “occupied” the overcrowded prison. In retaliation, inmates ordered from within the prison a wave of violence in São Luís, with four buses burned and police stations attacked.

On the July 14, 2013, Amarildo Dias de Souza, who is a father of six and a construction worker, was taken by police for questioning during Operation Armed Peace, a crackdown against the poor (or drug traffickers, depending on the version) in Rocinha, the largest slum of Rio de Janeiro.

Amarildo was tortured for 40 minutes by four police officers, with plastic bags and drowning. The justice system today charges 25 police officers with involvement in his death. The operation was part of the so-called Pacifying Police Units, or UPPs, new units of the police in that city that occupy slums with heavy weapons to enforce “peace.” These are only a few stories of many that I could mention.  

Violence is part of everyday life in Brazil, even though certain groups are disproportionally more affected. For instance, the homicide rates of blacks is twice as high as that of whites. Two well-known movies show how violence is commonplace for all: “City of God” and “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.”

A 2010 poll by the Institute of Applied Economic Research in Brazil found that 79 percent of the population is very much afraid of being assassinated. Only one in ten is not afraid of being assassinated. The homicide rate was 27.1 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011, with 106,603 homicides. While there was a noticeable decrease in the national rate around 2005, it oscillated in recent years, and the total number of deaths is still very high. The official numbers recorded from 1980 to 2011 is of 2,347,082 violent deaths in Brazil. (In 2012 the rate in Canada was 1.56 per 100 thousand inhabitants, the lowest since 1966.) In the State of Alagoas, the homicide rate for young black individuals in 2011 was 201.2 per 100,000 inhabitants.

The “Map of Violence 2013” published by the Sangari Institute compares some numbers, using the “Global Burden of Armed Violence” report of the Geneva Declaration Secretariat. In the top 12 armed conflicts in the world from 2004 to 2007—including Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Colombia, Congo—there  were officially 169,574 direct deaths. During the same period, Brazil officially recorded 206,005. In fact, that number is closer to the total official number of direct deaths of the top 62 armed conflicts in the world combined in the period: 208,349.

Brazil is a country of contrasts. A general notion abroad is that the economy is getting better after president Lula came to power in 2003. However, even being the sixth largest economy in the world today, the country ranks low worldwide in income distribution. While poverty and income inequality have decreased in the previous decade, with 35 million people out of extreme poverty, the rates of violence did not show similar decline in the period. From 2000 to 2009, the homicide rate has stayed relatively stable, around 26 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants per year.  

The Catholic National Conference of Bishops of Brazil promotes the “Fraternity Campaigns” every Lenten season, with different themes. Violence was the theme of 2009, 1983 and 1973. In 2004 and 2005, a national disarmament campaign involved different religious organizations, NGOs and the government. More than 220 churches were collection points of firearms.

In spite of these efforts, however, we cannot say that non-violence is a noticeable characteristic of Christian institutions in Brazil. Sadly, many Christian politicians and practitioners often profess troublesome discourses that are incompatible with a message of non-violence.

Mennonite Central Committee had an office in Brazil for 44 years. It closed in 2012. Most of the work focused on rural programs (water access, food security projects and health programs), while the latter years had local programs with issues of family violence and peace education in the city of Recife.

I left Brazil in 1998, and violence was one important reason for the decision. I grew up in a Baptist church, but I had never heard of Martin Luther King Jr.

In Canada, I got to know part of the rich history of non-violence among Anabaptists. Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), for example, has a beautiful history of action in zones of conflict, an emphasis that deserves our continued support. Ronald J. Sider’s speech at the Mennonite World Conference of 1984, which led to the formation of CPT, said, “we need to reject the ways we have misunderstood or weakened Jesus' call to be peacemakers.” He then made a challenging appeal for North American and European Anabaptists to engage actively in direct nonviolent action, especially in zones of conflict. Since then, CPT continues to send teams to zones of conflict.

It would be nice if the history of Anabaptist practices of non-violence were available in Portuguese. It would be nice if Canadian and Brazilian youth, perhaps facilitated by technology, could connect and think about what it means to be peacemakers in practice in their contexts. And it would be nice if the world kept in mind during this year of Soccer World Cup that Brazilians can laugh and cry. 

Gustavo Frederico was born in Brazil and has lived in Canada since 1998. He is an adherent of the Ottawa Mennonite Church.

—Posted April 8, 2014

Share this page: Twitter Instagram

Add new comment

Canadian Mennonite invites comments and encourages constructive discussion about our content. Actual full names (first and last) are required. Comments are moderated and may be edited. They will not appear online until approved and will be posted during business hours. Some comments may be reproduced in print.