Brazil: When Will the Government Act to Reduce Firearm Deaths Among Children?

By Beatriz Rey and Estevan Muniz*

Brazilian police
Police in a city in Brazil./ dfactory/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Gun-related violence against Brazilian children and teenagers has been alarmingly high for years – rising to 9,818 in 2017 and 8,253 in 2018 – but the Brazilian government has paid little attention to the issue. Seventy percent of the over 140,000 children and teenagers (0-19 years old) killed in firearm-related incidents between 2001 and 2018 were Black. While exact figures remain elusive, the independent Brazilian Public Security Forum estimates about one in almost five of the deaths – 2,884 children and teenagers in the two-year period 2017‑18 – resulted from police interventions.

  • The issue first appeared on the Congressional agenda in 1992, when legislators created a Parliamentary Inquiry Committee (CPI) in the Chamber of Deputies to investigate the high number of killings of children and teenagers. Of the eight bills proposed by the CPI, only two became law – one establishing restrictions on private security companies and one removing some immunities from military police who commit crimes against civilians. Neither law has directly impacted the killing of children and teenagers. Several other bills, including one that would have created a National Code for Gun Ownership, failed.
  • Legislators instituted another CPI in 2015 (in the Senate) to examine homicides among Black youths. Their work resulted in a single bill (PLS 240/2016) that proposed a National Plan to Combat the Killing of Young People. The plan aims to reduce the number of youth homicides to less than 10 for every 100,000 youths over the next 10 years and to prosecute up to 80 percent of crimes against them. The Senate approved the bill (now called PL 9796/2018) in 2018, but no Chamber vote has occurred.
  • An executive branch initiative, enacted by the administration of former President Lula da Silva in partnership with UNICEF and the Favelas Observatory in 2009, was the Program for the Reduction of Lethal Violence Against Adolescents and Youth (PRVL), which attempted to mobilize key societal actors, produce indicators of lethality, and analyze cases of successful mortality reduction. The PRVL is no longer active; it was discontinued during the Dilma Rousseff administration.

Squabbling between the left and right has led to inconsistent and short-lived policies that have failed to reduce gun violence. The two Cardoso administrations (1995-2002) took only incremental steps in addressing law and order issues. Fears of failure and popular blame made Lula (2003-11) reluctant to implement his own National Public Security Plan. He eventually enacted the National Plan of Public Security and Citizenship (PRONASCI) in his second term, but Rousseff (2011-16) discontinued it – reflecting the lack of a coherent proposal from the left in the face of lobbying from the Armed Forces, police associations, and police chiefs within an institutional legacy of the dictatorship (1964‑85).

  • The lack of effective policy action is also due to the policymakers’ cognitive and institutional constraints. Leaders can only focus on a limited set of issues at once, and building majorities in legislatures on contentious issues has proven beyond them. Earlier this year a few legislators attempted to schedule a vote on the bill creating a National Plan to Combat the Killing of Young People (PL 9796/2018) in the Chamber of Deputies – where it’s been stuck since 2018 – but the COVID‑19 pandemic shifted all attention away.

After years of government failure to protect the lives of thousands of children and teenagers, civic action might be the only feasible way to tackle the issue. Mobilization has achieved successes in other areas such as education, where civil society groups recently pressed deputies and the executive branch to approve the National Fund for Basic Education (Fundeb).  

  • A window of opportunity currently exists to push the Senate-approved draft bill – PL 9796/2018 – to the Chamber floor. It enjoys broad civil society support and, unlike proposals from the 1992 CPI, offers comprehensive national guidelines, goals, and strategies for the federal government, states, and municipalities. In this sense, bill 9796/2018 provides a consensus-based roadmap for future political negotiation.
  • While a lack of data on the link between police violence and race makes it hard to target policy solutions for Black children and teenagers, progress on the broader issue of police violence will especially affect this vulnerable segment of the Brazilian population. The renewed focus on race and police violence in Brazil presents the opportunity for popular mobilization to bring necessary attention to the issue. Reigniting this policy conversation could represent a first step towards preventing future deaths.

September 23, 2020

* Beatriz Rey is a CLALS Research Fellow. Estevan Muniz is a journalist at TV Globo and a filmmaker. This is an adaptation of an article first published by the Wilson Center.

Violence and Risky Responses in El Salvador

By Héctor Silva

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén, facing a surge in gang-related violence, is grasping at risky solutions.  The 481 murders last month – about 16 per day – broke a 10-year record and represented a 52 percent increase over the same month in 2014.  The soaring murder rate has deep roots going back to well before Sánchez Cerén and his FMLN predecessor, President Funes, came to power in 2009, but its immediate cause is the end last year of the three-way truce between the country’s two biggest gangs – the MS13 and Barrio 18 – and the government.  Negotiated by the Funes administration in 2012, the truce provided a respite that, according to many observers, was doomed to fail because it split gang leaders, with those outside prison expanding their power, and allowed both gangs to expand their territorial control largely unfettered.  Another factor is weak leadership and low morale among public security forces, especially the National Police, which has gutted confidence among the rank and file and prompted some frustrated commanders to take matters into their own hands.  Extrajudicial executions of gang members in retaliation for the loss of police comrades have further driven up the death toll.  Observers increasingly refer to El Salvador’s current situation as a “low-intensity conflict.”

Sánchez Cerén has tried an array of sometimes contradictory tactics in response to the gang problem and the violence, creating an appearance of incoherence and ineffectiveness.  Without disputing estimates of the spiraling death toll, he has blamed the right wing and the media for creating a crisis atmosphere.  Over the past 10 months, he has attempted – and failed – to implement “community policing” strategies, which languish due to inadequate funding and planning, and he recently led several hundred thousand people in a march for “life, peace, and justice.”  With mounting pressure on the President to adopt hardline approaches, he has pledged greater resources to arm and deploy special anti-gang units, and last week he announced intent to supplement the 7,000 military troops already dedicated to law-enforcement duty with the creation of three new “Gang Cleanup Battalions.”  The government says that these 1,200 elite Army troops, strikingly reminiscent of the “Immediate Reaction Infantry Battalions” (BIRIs) that committed grave human rights abuses when deployed during the civil war, will be under civilian police control.

The President’s moves are fraught with danger.  His zigzags signal weakness to his ambitious political opponents and the gangs alike, and his political liabilities will only mount if, as almost all observers expect, the new battalions escalate the war in a manner that fuels extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations.  Criticism from advocates of dialogue with the gangs, including negotiators involved in the previous truce, further weaken him.  The fact is that the gangs, taking advantage of decades of state neglect of key sectors of society, have established strong bases of support in areas where the state’s presence and credibility are already nil or worse.  The shift toward a militarized strategy, moreover, runs counter to the tragic lessons learned in Honduras and Guatemala.  Going after the maras will entail battle in marginalized urban and rural areas that should be Sánchez Cerén’s and his FMLN party’s natural constituencies.  In a lose-lose situation, Sánchez Cerén may be opting for the surer loss.

April 23, 2015