Under the Gun in Rio
(Brazzil Magazine, 11/05/2003)
Rio de Janeiro is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, affectionately known as the "marvelous city." But it is also one of the most deadly. The longer you stay in Rio, the greater your chance of a violent death. When one of the thousands of desperate poor decides to assault you, he will do so with a pistol, not a knife. Demonstrate even the slightest resistance and you will be shot. Firearms killed 40,000 Brazilians in all of Brazil, last year, according to anti-violence NGO Viva Rio. In a city where gun violence is out of control, arms control should be the first and most important goal of prudent public policy.
In the last week of October, the Brazilian Upper House of Congress unanimously voted to pass a bill that bans the possession of firearms by civilians and severely restricts their sale. The bill also stipulates that a plebiscite in 2005 will decide a complete ban on the sale and possession of firearms. If it passes in the Lower House, proponents are sure the President will sign it into law. Implementation will be challenging.
On the ground, problems caused by the proliferation of illegal firearms spiral upward. In January 2002, the Brazilian government officially admitted that it did not have control over the shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro. There are over 800 favelas, or shantytowns, in Rio. Organized criminal gangs control over half of them, which are home to some 1.2 million Brazilians. Within the ranks of organized crime, hundreds of militias, made up of thousands of young men and teenagers, carry automatic weapons while on patrol, day and night.
Just as often, military police raid the favelas with deadly precision and force. The cops kill as many drug-gang soldiers as they can. At the slightest detection of an ambush, they shoot first and ask questions second. The armed poor retaliate in kind. It is an unofficial, urban war.
According to Viva Rio researcher Luke Dowdney, between December 1987 and November 2001, violent death claimed 3,937 of Rio de Janeiro's adolescents under the age of 18. In comparison, 467 minors died violently during the same four year period in the West Bank, a region considered a war zone by the United Nations.
Seasoned cops, many with scars from years of shootouts in the favelas, claim the difference between a dead rookie and a living veteran is the split second it takes to decide to shoot a child, because you never know if he is armed or not.
Perhaps more alarming is the fact that stray bullets, shot by untrained individuals, kill innocent civilians by the hundreds. Those who live in the favelas train themselves to roll off and then under their bed, without waking up, at the slightest sound of a firefight. Many use cinder blocks to defend themselves from stray bullets that pierce their bedroom wall with ease.
While random, senseless death and violent crime are consequences of the drug trade in Rio de Janeiro, the proliferation of cheap pistols and revolvers is another story. Anyone can ask around and find a cheap pistol and a handful of bullets. Clandestine gun dealers sell revolvers for as little as US$ 18, and if a vendor sells five a day, he is doing moderately well. If he sells ten, it's a good day. As a result, altercations between motorists, taxi drivers, or other civilians, which might normally become a shouting match or a fist fight, now frequently end in blood shed and often death.
Fortunately, civil society and a large number of Brazilians who live in Rio de Janeiro have come together to act against gun violence and illegal gun possession. On a rainy day this past August, some 50,000 Brazilians marched against gun violence. Months prior to the march, a survey of Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro revealed that over 80 percent are in favor of gun control. In a city where there are too many guns and too little trust in the police to protect citizens, the people have spoken out against firearms.
Nevertheless, the death toll continues to rise. According to Viva Rio, firearms have contributed to some 300,000 deaths in Brazil since 1991. While most people in Rio de Janeiro believe that arms control is the best solution to reducing violence, there remains significant resistance to a future where there are no clandestine gun sales and civilian gun possession is a rarity. Like in the United States, the arms lobby is very strong in Brazil. The implementation of an arms control law will require top-down initiation and broad cooperation between many officials, merchants, and private citizens.
Such widespread cooperation and respect for new legislation is not commonplace in Brazil. Yet when Brazilian politicians must choose between gun control and random, violent death in their country, not even the most conservative should need a moment to think. And for those who live in Rio de Janeiro, where every day might bring violent death, gun control is no longer a matter of debate. It is a matter of life and death. The beauty of Brazil's "marvelous city" will not reduce violence and needless death. Thousands of Brazilians hope their politicians, through passing the arms control bill, will.