While today's democratic period in Brazil was initially hailed in the late 1980s as the commencement of a new era of freedom and human rights, the country has nevertheless faced an explosion of violence and criminality over the last two decades, cheapening human life despite the status the law ascribes to it.
Homicide is currently the major cause (58%) of early death for Brazilians. A report from the United Nations has revealed that while the country has only 2.8% of the world's population, it is responsible for more than 11% of registered homicides.
According to the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), around 600,000 people were killed in Brazil between 1980 and 2000, an average of 30,000 a year. In comparison, the thirty-year civil war that devastated Angola killed "only" 350,000 people. According to Timothy Cahill, an investigating leader for the Amnesty International, the number of deaths in Brazil falls easily within the U.N. parameters for a situation of civil war.
Although Article 144 to the Constitution states that the provision of public security is a primary obligation of the government, the sad reality is that authorities have shown a disturbing lack of ability (and interest) to effectively protect this most basic right of the citizen.
The police in Brazil rarely catch criminals, and those who are convicted can go free within a few years in prison. A 2003 report of the United Nations revealed that only 7.9% of the 49,000 cases of murder officially reported in Brazil were successfully prosecuted.
The police seldom investigate criminal cases diligently, even when it involves offences such as rape, torture, and first-degree murder. Investigations are often conducted in a superficial and incomplete manner, if not visibly performed with bad-faith.
As a result, even the most notorious cases of first-degree murder may not produce enough evidence to even initiate the trial of well-known perpetrators. Brazilian courts condemn only 1% of all suspects for first-degree murder, because judges argue that inquiries transferred to them by the public prosecution are so poorly elaborated that they apparently find no evidence to condemn even a serial killer.
Policies regarding public security in Brazil are tantamount to an "invitation to criminality", argues Dr. Candido Mendes Prunes, a jurist with a Ph.D. from the prestigious University of São Paulo (USP). He explains that the state gives a "package of incentives" to criminality that no honest citizen can find to develop legal activities.
As part of this "package", Prunes highlights the lack of preventive policing, the lack of ability to investigate cases diligently, and judicial delay. The last "incentive" occurs, he says, particularly because the long police enquiries can allow offenders to benefit from the statute of limitations which establishes a limit of time for the trial of suspects.
People in Brazil, therefore, are reasonably inclined to believe that criminals have very little to fear in terms of punishment from the state. The feeling of impunity, which is indeed widespread, explains why so many citizens have resorted to taking "justice" into their hands.
Despite how primitive do-it-yourself justice may seem, mob executions and lynchings have become a daily occurrence throughout Brazil. Such actions are a popular answer to situations of theft, rape, and murder.
According to the Organization of American States (OAS), these practices represent a natural solution to "the lack of a functional and effective police system, and the fact that the public does not believe in the effectiveness of the justice system".
It is worthwhile also considering that Brazilian police officers are in general unqualified, unprepared, highly corrupt, and poorly paid. An ancillary body to the armed forces, the state uniformed police have been accused of treating suspects as "military enemies who are to be destroyed".
In some states the salary of police officers begins at just a few dollars above the minimum wage fixed by legislation. For a career demanding courage, discipline, and sensitivity, the state provides an extremely low salary as well as inadequate training. Due to their poor wages, honest officers have no other option but to live with their families in poor areas normally under the control of drug gangs.
But it is also the case that policemen have been involved in extortions, kidnappings, the torturing of suspects, arbitrary detentions, trafficking of narcotics, and executions by death squads. Rather than expelling bad officers from the force, state authorities have actually decorated them.
In 1997, for example, the government of São Paulo promoted a policeman who was responsible for at least forty extra-legal executions. Similarly, the government of Rio de Janeiro established in 1995 "salary bonuses" for police officers engaged in "acts of bravery". In practice, says the HRW, such "acts of bravery" were often confused with the summary execution of suspects.
When Rio's state police executed a record one hundred people in April 2003, public-security secretary Anthony Garotinho argued that those killings were a 'positive development'. He assured the population that the police had limited the killing 'only' to criminals.
The explanation seemed relevant since everybody knows in the city that it is not always that the police kill 'only' criminals. On 2 April, 2005, for example, the police in Rio massacred 30 people in a shantytown in reprisal for the arrest of three policemen who were filmed by residents of that area lobbing the heads of their victims over the wall of a house.