I am reading two great books about Brazil at the moment. Teresa Caldeira’s City of walls: crime segregation and citizenship and Sarah Hautzinger’s Violence in the city of women: police and batterers in Bahia, Brazil.
The latter book tells the story of Brazil’s all-women police stations. Hautzinger spent some time living in a favela to research it and she remembers in her encounters with foreign journalists:
It became clear that they had hoped I would regale them with bloodcurdling brutalizing horrors, confirming their expectations of the exotic barbarity of Latin American men and the overall gravity of gender-based violence in Brazil that could necessitate all-female police stations. . . . This work approaches violence’s significance for gendered power relations as being far more complex than has been commonly recognized and advocates distinguishing between contrasting dynamics of violence as well as how they fit into global, national and regional historical processes. . . . Preventing violence requires more than punishment. . . . . Moreover criminalization-centered responses are inadvertently elitist, benefiting white and middle class women at the expense of poor and working class women and women of color who are more reluctant to involve police because of perceived bias.
Caldeira’s book is more difficult to summarize, but is basically about the impact that the rise in violent crime has had on Brazilian society as a whole. The following quote gives some idea of her approach:
The talk of crime promotes a symbolic reorganization of a world disrupted both by the increase in crime and by a series of processes that have profoundly affected Brazilian society in the last few decades. These processes include political democratization and persistent high inflation, economic recession, and the exhaustion of a model of development based on nationalism, import substitution, protectionism and state-sponsored economic development. Crime offers the imagery with which to express feelings of loss and social decay generated by these other processes and to legitimate the reaction adopted by many residents: private security to ensure isolation, enclosure and distancing from those considered dangerous
Brazil is one of the most violent countries in the world with 40,000 homicides every year. Much of this violence comes from the police. In Sao Paulo and Rio alone they shoot dead over 1,000 people a year. Torture is routine in Brazilian police stations and police violence is widely supported in Brazilian society. When the organizer of a massacre in a Brazilian prison in which 111 prisoners were executed, successfully stood for election, for example, he chose the ‘111’ designation to identify himself on the ballot paper.
It also has some very well-organized criminal gangs, who have been able to shut down the city centers of both Rio and Sao Paulo on quite a few occasions in recent years. A couple of years ago an assault and counter-assault that they launched against the police and prison warders resulted in 150 people being killed over a single weekend. They also forced a national television network to broadcast a video outlining their demands. On another occasion in Rio we found ourselves trapped inside our flat for several days while gun battles raged outside.
I am currently working on an Access to Justice project in Brazil and the issues that it is throwing up are forcing me to think harder about my work in other parts of the world. I had previously spent a year and a half in Afghanistan running a legal aid project and for the last five years I have worked as a consultant, mainly setting up and advising similar projects elsewhere.
The biggest problem that we faced in Afghanistan was that the official court system was dysfunctional and so we relied instead largely on customary law mechanisms mediated through Shuras and Jirgas. The lack of respect that Afghan customary law gives to women’s rights was obviously a central dilemma for us, although we did manage to successfully represent women in a number of divorce, custody, inheritance and maintenance cases. Later, working in Liberia, Northern Uganda and Aceh, Indonesia I found the issue of how to manage the inter-relationship between customary and official law one of the biggest challenges in such projects and one which the international donor community is still failing to deal with.
Having lived in Brazil for the last five years and being married to a judge who runs a Community Justice project, I probably have a far better insight into the problems of the Brazilian criminal justice system, but am still amazed at how little I understand it. Caldeira makes the interesting point that although Brazil has had a liberal constitution for almost two centuries now, this has coexisted with slavery (also true in the US, of course) and long periods of military dictatorship in which people were frequently tortured and detained without trial. Brazil’s return to democracy in the 1980s coincided with an economic slump and many Brazilians still hark back to the days of stronger government. She also notes that Brazilians have historically embraced liberal ideas and institutions – which are associated with richer, more developed countries – but these have often been largely for ‘ornamental’ purposes. The phrase Para Ingles Ver (‘for the English to see’, means ‘pulling the wool over someone’s eyes’ and refers to the number of Brazilian laws passed abolishing slavery, which were never put into effect).
Thinking about this dynamic makes me realize what a virtually impossible task it is to impose legal reforms from on a country from the outside, although this is seen as a central part of package of aid and development measures that those like Paul Collier advocate if we are to save the ‘bottom billion’ in the world’s ‘fifty failing states’.
Living in such a violent country as Brazil has also made me think more about how we consider conflicts in other parts of the world and – in particular – what is the basis for the current western military strategy in Afghanistan? Since Brazil’s death rate is higher and our criminal gangs are probably just as well organized as the Taliban (a catch-all name which covers a variety of anti-government insurgents) what do western leaders mean when they talk about defeating them? I was in Afghanistan twice last year working on two separate projects – some research into how humanitarian agencies were protecting themselves from attack and an evaluation of the Italian government’s judicial reform program. Both visits were before the current troop surge and it was put to me that around 80% of the violence blamed on the Taliban was probably the work of criminal groups. I came away convinced that building a functioning state in areas under government control is far more important than the physical reconquest of the country. But the more I think about the practicalities of ‘nation-building’ the more daunting the prospects appear.
The answers, as Hautzinger argues in relation to tackling the problems of violence against women, are not likely to be found through the imposition of new laws or external models, but through working from the bottom up with affected communities. One of the fascinating things about Brazil is that encompasses within its own borders most of the problems that Collier argues face the world’s failing states: ‘conflict traps’, ‘resource curse’, political instability, massive inequallity corruption and bad governance. It is already having to confront the social consequences of these phenomena and how it does so has implications for how they can be tackled elsewhere.
In other words, you get a really interesting view of the rest of the world from here.