Para Ingles Ver

by Conor Foley on August 23, 2009

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.



nickhayw 08.24.09 at 1:04 am

What an interesting post. The customary vs. conventional law problem is huge, particularly when traditional justice mechanisms aren’t systematized or visible. As another example, in Nepal it is routine for rape victims to neglect conventional channels in favour of customary ‘sorry-don’t-tell’ type payments to their families.

The change has to come from the bottom up, but how…at least when I was there women’s shelters and advocacy/legal-aid organizations were by and large chronically underfunded, notwithstanding other issues (trust the big one). Shelters in particular seem like some of the least attractive ‘investments’ for (mainstream) foreign charities (much rather build a school with no teachers or a road in a district with no cars). Would love to hear more of your experiences in Afghanistan


Kenny Easwaran 08.24.09 at 12:37 pm

When you say the death rate in Brazil is higher, do you mean in absolute terms or per capita terms? How do the death rates in Rio and Sao Paulo compare to those in Baghdad and Kabul (and for that matter, Johannesburg, Washington, and Moscow?)


ajay 08.24.09 at 12:40 pm

it was put to me that around 80% of the violence blamed on the Taliban was probably the work of criminal groups.

As you imply in the post, it’s probably futile to try to distinguish between “Taliban” and “criminal groups” in Afghanistan – this is to my mind one of the biggest failings of the 3-24 approach which tries to break down armed groups into ‘pro-government militia’, ‘anti-government militia’ and ‘criminal gangs’. Being a Talib, or for that matter a criminal, is generally not a full-time job for an Afghan MAM, and whether or not one particular group of armed MAMs counts as Taliban or not is really a question whose answer changes by the day, depending on a lot of local political factors. The best way to think of them is the Northern Ireland way, as ‘players’. An ANA colonel is a player, as is a local religious leader or a Taliban commander or a cross-border smuggler, and the objective is not to divide the country into Our Side and Enemy and then proceed to destroy the enemy (the approach one might take in, say, France) but to try to get as many of the players pulling in the desired direction as possible, and weaken the players who are going the other way.

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.

I’m puzzled by this – probably it’s explained better in the rest of the book. It seems to be saying “criminalising DV only helps richer women, because they’re the only ones who would go to the police” – fair enough, but how is this benefitting them at the expense of poorer ones? Surely criminalising wouldn’t make any difference to poor women, one way or the other, because ex hypothesi they don’t go to the police anyway. There’s no zero-sum aspect here that I can see.


Conor 08.24.09 at 1:16 pm

Thanks for the comments.

I will probably try and write something more specifically about Afghanistan if I have the time over the next few days (my wife is expecting our first baby this week!).

I have not worked in Nepal, but I think there is a project there similar to the one in Afghanistan. There was also a couple of very good legal aid clinics that the American Refugee Committee set up in Liberia specifically to address gender-based violence in the aftermath of the ‘sex for food scandal’ in the refugee camps.

Kenny: good points and I did not have time to do a per capita break-down. Caldeira does do some interesting statistical comparisons with US cities and she finds that while the overall per capita crime rates were not that far out of line, the number of people killed by the police was massively different. She was using figures going back 10 years or more though and I would have to hunt out the more recent statistics (the 40,000 a year homicide rate is a rough average for the last few years as is 1,000 a year killed by the police in Rio and Sao Paulo – I think that it is actually a bit higher in the former and lower in the latter). If anyone can source this better I would be grateful (since I am going to have to do it myself at some point!)

Ajay: good point on the Hautzinger book. I am mid-way through it right now so let’s see if she actually thinks it is a zero-sum approach (I suppose time spent investigating and prosecuting one could mean less time and resources for dealing with the other) or it was just a throwaway remark.

On the dealing with ‘Taliban’ issue, one of the criticisms that was made of US strategy in the early years was of this strategy. The ‘invasion’ of Afghanistan was carried out by a few hundred US CIA and Special Forces who flew into the country with suitcases full of cash. They bought up as many local militias as they could and then called down airstrikes on the rest. It was the Northern Alliance (a loose-grouping of anti-Taliban forces) who took Kabul and not the US marines. I have written a couple of pieces about this recently.

What these pieces argue for is basically holding the line against the insurgency and using that time to build up the state. My article above, though, suggests that is easier said than done.


schauspiele 08.24.09 at 1:43 pm

ajay@3, wouldn’t the argument be that if you centre the response on criminalization, you might end up with some nice new policing initiatives but to do this, money and time are most likely being diverted away from other resources such as emergency shelters for (often poor) women who don’t want to go to the police?


ajay 08.24.09 at 4:06 pm

Caldeira does do some interesting statistical comparisons with US cities and she finds that while the overall per capita crime rates were not that far out of line, the number of people killed by the police was massively different.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that people in US inner cities are rather more likely to report crimes to the police than are people in Brazilian inner cities – hopefully Caldeira has accounted for this.


Conor 08.24.09 at 5:53 pm

yes, she has a long section on under-reporting of a whole range of crimes and also notes that in Sao Paulo – which is the focus of her study – the number of reported homicides was significantly lower than the number of recorded deaths. She thinks that a significant factor in this may be due to the large number of killings which the police carry out and don’t get around to recording. Most of her statistics date back to the 1990s though.

I have just come across a more recent report which rates the proportion of robberies reported to the police at around 19% (the second lowest of a range of different countries – and compared to a reporting rate of about 68% in the US) while Brazil comes out the absolute highest country where people say they are afraid to walk the streets at night (followed by South Africa, Bolivia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Colombia in that order).


Randy Paul 08.26.09 at 2:16 am


True story. My wife’s brother-in-law is a part-time oral surgeon for the military police in Minas Gerais. He’s also an automobile enthusiast and one evening in Belo Horizonte we went with the brother-in-law of a friend of his, who happened to be a delegado (roughly equivalent to a precinct commander if I recall correctly) for the civil police to see a car at the delegado’s brother-in-law’s clothing factory on the outskirts of town. We went in the delegado’s car screaming through Belo Horizonte ( a hilly city with sinuous streets and heavy traffic) at speeds in excess of 100 kph.

When we got to the factory, it was closed and the guards let us in. There were four doberman pinschers roaming the area as guard dogs. The guards were having little success rounding them up, so the delegado pulls out a Browning and fires four shots in the air. The dogs scattered and I wished I could at that moment.

The lesson I learned was that many cops in Brazil have no fear of anything, including reckless actions like that.

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