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Taking only three states of the country (Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Minas Gerais), a comparison with patterns of police forces known for violence (such as South Africa and the United States) reveals a pattern of use of lethal force completely out of acceptable proportions.  The police of these three Brazilian states have killed almost five times more civilians than all of the North American states combined.


Police Violence in Rio de Janeiro: from Beatings to the Use of Lethal Force

Silvia Ramos[1]

Brazil has one of the highest indicators of lethal violence in the world, with 50 000 homicides per year and a rate of 28.5 homicides per 100 000 inhabitants.  For comparison, it suffices to say that Western European countries have rates lower than three intentional deaths per 100 000 inhabitants and the United States is in the range of five to six intentional deaths per 100 000 inhabitants.  Brazil increased from 11.7 homicides per 100 000 inhabitants in 1980, to 28.5 in 2002, more than tripling the rate of lethal violence and totaling nearly 700 000 people dead in those 23 years.

Besides being extremely high, the indices of lethal violence in Brazil are characterized by a profoundly unequal distribution in relation to the states, cities and also in relation to the age, social class and color of the victims.  Our 28.5 homicides per 100 000 inhabitants turned into more than 50 in states like Rio de Janeiro (56.4), Pernambuco (54.4) and Espirito Santo (51.3).[2]  When we observe the distribution by age, we see that in some states the homicide rates of youth aged 15-24 years exceeds 150 homicides per 100 000 youth of that age group.  This is the case in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and other states.  The distribution by color of the victims of intentional lethal violence also reveals an enormous concentration among black male youth, reaching across Brazil more than 120 homicides per 100 000 young blacks between 20 and 24 years.[3]  When we observe the internal distribution in a single city, we see that some wealthy neighborhoods, such as Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, in Rio de Janeiro, have rates of five homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, while poor areas, such as Vigário Geral, Parada de Lucas, and the Zone Oueste have rates of more than 80 homicides per 100 000 inhabitants.[4]  The same phenomenon of the “geography of death” is repeated in cities such as Belo Horizonte, and São Paulo.


Public Security Policies

The socio-economic profile and the low capacity for public pressure of the principal victims of violence may help to explain the delayed response of the governments on the theme of public security and the necessity of police democratization.  The indifference and silence with respect to the escalation of lethal violence predominated also between broad intellectual sectors, in the media and even among non-governmental organizations during the 1980s and part of the 1990s.  In reality, in the academic and university context, with rare exceptions, centers of study focused on themes of violence from the perspective of public security.

Along with the absence of investments and rational public policies, the majority of police forces in the country degraded and many became violent and inefficient. In some states, police violence turned into a major problem and directly affected the poor populations of slums and peripheries, who became cornered by the combination of violence by armed groups of traffickers, and police violence and corruption.

Looking at the indicators of lethal force use by police in Brazil - when information is available - we see extraordinarily high numbers of deaths provoked by police action. Police victimization is also very high. 


Table 1 - Deaths of civilians and military police in three states (2004)



Civilians killed in conflict with police­­­

Police deaths

Rio de Janeiro



São Paulo



Minas Gerais




Source: Secretaries of Security - São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro states.  Military police of Minas Gerais


Even taking only three states (Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Minas Gerais), a comparison with patterns of police forces known for violence (such as South Africa and the United States) reveals a pattern of use of lethal force completely out of acceptable proportions.  The police of these three Brazilian states have killed almost five times more civilians than all of the North American states combined.


Table 2 - Deaths of civilians by police - international comparison




Civilians killed by police

South Africa



United States









United Kingdom









Brazil (RJ, SP, MG)




The state of Rio de Janeiro constitutes a serious case amidst the worrying panorama of Brazil.  In that state, more than ten percent of homicides are provoked by the police, with incidents reaching 900 assassinations in 2002, 1195 in 2004, and 983 in 2004, showing an extraordinary growth in police violence.

The number of police deaths has also risen, although at a much lower proportion than that of civilians.  Another characteristic of the phenomenon of police deaths in the state of Rio de Janeiro is its incidence predominantly off duty.  Approximately 70% of police deaths occur in second jobs, that is, when they are “sidelining” as private security.

Police violence assumes, as do homicide rates in the city, a specific geography, being strongly concentrated in poor areas.  A low presence of civil rights organizations in these areas and a sort of “naturalization” of the idea that conflicts in slums generate civilian victims could help to clarify why these numbers have been rising in recent years.  The fact is that police violence has gone out of the control of superior commands as has police corruption, which has grown in proportion to the concession of the “license to kill”. 


Table 3 - Records of resistance and on-duty police deaths in the capital Rio de Janeiro - 2003


Resistance records

Military Police killed on duty

Poor Areas



West Zone



North Zone






Ilha do Governador



South Zone



Municipality of Rio de Janeiro




Source: Diário Oficial of the State of Rio de Janeiro/Asplan and Demographic Census 2000 (IBGE).  Adaptation: CESeC


The characteristics of these deaths are important.  A thorough study carried out by Cano (1997) of legal proceedings of resistance in the years 1993 to 1996, in the city of Rio de Janeiro, revealed that the victims are primarily young men (from 15 to 29 years, with emphasis in the range of 20 to 24 years) and that 64% are black, contrasting with 39% percent blacks in the general population of the city.  The study also shows that police action in slums is more lethal than in other places.  In addition, the analysis showed that nearly half of the bodies received four shots or more and the majority of the cadavers displayed at least one shot in the back or head, constituting clear cases of summary executions among the “confrontational deaths”[5]


“Every police van has an element of a slave boat”

In 2003, CESeC carried out a quantitative and qualitative research in the city of Rio de Janeiro to understand the predominant dynamics between police and citizens in police arrests.  The results revealed that the strong racial bias that orients these actions combines with criteria of age, gender, and social class, producing an index of risk of being considered suspicious by the police that we call IGCC (age, gender, color and class).  To be young, black, and poor combines in turn with the geographical area of arrests, such that the slum and periphery areas are considered by the police as “suspicious territories”.  Besides the disproportionally high incidence of young, black males being stopped by police when walking on foot in the street, (in contrast with the proportionally low incidence for women, white men, and older people) the research also reveals that the police treatment dispensed in the arrests varies according to the color, social class, and age of the suspect.

Body searches, a treatment considered humiliating and violent by young blacks and whites interviewed in the study - is visibly more frequent when a Black person is arrested  (55%), in contrast with 32.6 percent of those who self-identify as “white”.

Youths are searched more often than older people, and people with incomes higher than five times the minimum wage were searched in only 17% of arrests, as opposed to 40% among those with incomes lower than five minimum wages.

Figure 1 - Body searches by age and monthly income of arrested persons


  • Half of youths aged 15 to 24 stopped while walking in the street were searched, while only 25% of people over 40 years were searched
  • People with monthly incomes up to five times the minimum wage were searched in more than 40% of cases; only 17% of people with higher incomes were searched.

The CESeC study was initiated by the recognition of the necessity of developing investigations about the racial gap in various questions connected to the criminal justice system.  The symbolic relations between ‘color’ and ‘criminality’ in Brazil, while they are historic and evident, are not matched by adequate studies that indicate how these relations develop, through which mechanisms, and to what degree stereotypes related to color and race affect the functioning of the system.  We decided to investigate where the justice system begins: with the police.  And reflecting on the police, we decided to begin where the police begin, in the daily arrests on the streets. The study was also inspired by the North American literature on “racial profiling”, an expression created by the civil rights movement in the United States to identify the racial filter that frequently existed in the police forces. A majority of the 50,000 Brazilians assassinated each year are young black residents of poor areas in urban centers. 


[1] Silvia Ramos is a social scientist and coordinator of the Centre for Studies of Security and Citizenship (CESeC - Centro de Estudos de Segurança e Cidadania) of Candido Mendes University.

[2] Data from the System of Information on Mortality - Datasus 2002.

[3] Veja Soares, Glaúcio e Borges Dorian  A cor da morte.  Revista Ciência Hoje, October 2004.

[4] Musumeci, Leonarda. Annotated map with data from the Civil Police of the State of Rio de Janeiro, 2003.

[5] Cano, Ignacio.  Letalidade de ação policial no Rio de Janeiro.  Rio de Janeiro: ISER, 1997