World

Recife, Brazil: Is anyone listening to the Colonel?

By G Mills, D Davis & L White 27 November 2015

Brazil’s fifth-largest metropolitan area with a population of 3.8 million, Recife is the capital of the state of Pernambuco. From a peak of 400 murders per month in 2007, Recife has managed to get this terrible statistic under some control through better focus, co-ordination, increased spending and more police. And thanks to people like Colonel Cruz. By GREG MILLS, DICKIE DAVIS and LYAL WHITE.

The 16th Battalion of Brazil’s Military Police is based at a former bus station in Recife in the north-east region. The 490 officers under the command of Colonel Cruz work four shifts, thinly stretched over 14 km2 of some of the most dangerous areas of city. Armed with shotguns, side-arms and Tasers, the eight-man section of the elite anti-drug unit Grupo Tactico, looked menacing in their black uniforms, the “GATI” stencilled across the front of their caps confirming their affiliation to any doubters. They were joined by the yellow-capped Guarda Municipal, known as GTO, the unit’s badge is an unlikely Darth Vader mask.

The 16th Battalion’s headquarters. (Greg Mills)

The Colonel briefed us on the likely patrol circuit.

Colonel Cruz (Greg Mills)

A vehicle movement through the ‘dealer spots’ would be followed by a foot-patrol around the bus station. Mounted up, as we turned into the barrio of San Jose, immediately the doors in the leading Duster were flung open, the GATI bundling out, handguns at the ready. A group of men, drinking, were instantly up against the wall, patted down, hands behind their necks. “Just looking for drugs, guns …” explained our driver, Tiago.

And on we bumped, through mounds of garbage hosting hungry wide-eyed cats and the occasional mangy dog, negotiating food barrows and small kids, and passing staring young men lounging about, shirts off, crude tattoos on display. As we journeyed, slowly, through the tight alleyways of Coelhos, the lead vehicle came to a sudden stop again, two GATI policemen, guns in their hands, fingers on the trigger guard, moving quickly down an alleyway. “A dealer spot,” said the Colonel walking over. More men patted down.

Image from a ‘patrol circuit’. (Greg Mills)

Image from a ‘patrol circuit’. (Greg Mills)

Image from a ‘patrol circuit’. (Greg Mills)

Tiago admitted that he had never been to these areas. “Too dangerous,” he said. He had been in the force for just a month, following three months of training, attracted by the regular monthly income of R$3,000, or US$800, “more steady” than his previous job as a driving instructor. He was studying law at night-school, aspiring to become a member of the Civil Police, the investigation branch. Such ambition was expected from a squad which, while tough and a little scary, was professional, avoiding the display of unnecessary force. Cruz proudly explained that Pernambuco was rated third among the Brazil’s 32 states for killing the least people. “If you do not display respect and courtesy towards citizens,” he says, “they won’t trust you.”

Photo: The patrol team with the writers.

The unit put up a temporary road-block at the Santa Amaro intersection, underneath the Metro rail-line, between two pillars bedecked with gaudy graffiti. At our backs was a favela urban slum, the inhabitants just faint smudges in the deepening dusk. With flashing lights, and unfurled collapsible traffic cones advertising our fresh presence, suddenly a bus hissed to a stop, the inhabitants yelling and waving from the windows. “Two men got up when they saw the road-block,” explained the interpreter, Charles, “leapt through the windows, and ran off.”

The GATI set off in pursuit, only to return back ten minutes later, empty handed. The Colonel explained, pointing in the general direction of the suburb of Juana Bezerra from whence we had come. “There is no way we can find them in there,” he shrugged.

Brazil’s fifth-largest metropolitan area with a population of 3.8 million, Recife is the capital of the state of Pernambuco. Brazil suffered 58,000 murders last year, “more than most wars” admits Pernambuco’s Secretary for Public Security Rodrigo Bastos. (Indeed, the US lost 58,000 in Vietnam.) This translates into an annual rate of around 29 murders per 100,000 people. At 90/100,000, Honduras is the worst ranked world-wide; at 31/100,000, South Africa ranks 10th. Yet, from a peak of 400 murders per month in 2007, Recife has managed to get this terrible statistic under some control through better focus, co-ordination, increased spending and more police.

The per capita income of Pernambuco, one of 26 Brazilian states is, at R$11,776 (or US $3,000), about half the national average. Still, it has enjoyed a relatively prosperous past, the centre of the economy of the north-east region. The warehouses lining the city’s old port along the River Capibaribe hint at its prosperity when, as the capital of Holland’s 17th century Brazilian empire, Recife’s wealth grew quickly along with the state’s sugar exports.

South of the city is Pernambuco’s main industrial area, housing all manner of manufacturing firms, from textiles to electronics. To the north, in Goiana, 70km from Recife, is a state-of-the-art $2 billion Fiat-Chrysler auto plant, building the latest Jeep Renegade and Fiat pick-ups, drawing together a cluster of component suppliers, providing jobs for 6,500 workers.

Within the city limits, founded in 2000, the “Porto Digital” has attracted 250 high-tech companies including multinationals like Motorola, Samsung, Dell and Sun, generating 7,500 jobs and $350 million in annual revenues. The pool of talent is fed by four public universities. Tourism is also a major earner. The annual carnival brings in 800,000 visitors, drawn too by the renovation of the old town around the atmospheric Arsenal da Marinha square and Bom Jesus Street. As a result, between 2007 and 2013, for example, Pernambuco grew its economy at 4.4% annually, well above the national average of 3.4%. Still, despite an increasing income per capita, the security situation worsened during the 2000s, a result, says Rodrigo Bastos, of “drugs, especially the prevalence of crack, along with overcrowding, and limited job opportunities.”

Watch: Frevo, performing arts of the Carnival of Recife (Unesco)

Faced with a mounting murder rate totalling 4,638 in 2007 among the state’s 8.6 million people, the governor, Eduardo Campos, put together Pacto Pela Vida, a “Pact for Life”, the first public safety plan in the state’s history. A two-term governor, Campos was killed in an aircraft accident in August 2014 while campaigning for president.

Encompassing all government agencies, the aim of the Campos plan was to reduce violent deaths by improving government co-ordination, increasing policing numbers, deploying technology in the form mainly of CCTV, extending community outreach, engaging more actively in drug prevention, and paying bonuses to police for crime reductions.

Photo: A woman walks past a mural with an image of the late Brazilian Socialist Party presidential candidate, Eduardo Campos, outside the party’s election campaign headquarters, in Recife, Brazil, 14 August 2014. Campos was killed on 13 August 2014 along with six other people when a small private plane crashed in a residential area in Santos in Sao Paulo state. EPA/Fernando Bizerra Jr.

The result has been a significant decline in violent and other crimes. Recife’s murder rate, which at 73.6/100,000 ranked alongside the peak experienced by Bogota in the 1990s, declined by 54% between 2007-14 to 34/100,000. The Pernambuco state’s numbers declined by 30%, from 56/100,000 to 39/100,000 over the same period. Not only was this decline impressive, but it occurred at a time when the crime rate spiked elsewhere in the country. Further south, in Bahia, the murder rate rose by 347% over the same period and, in Bahia’s capital Salvador, by 370%. Nationally violent crime increased by 10% over this time.

This occurred despite, as with Colonel Cruz’s men and women, a police force thinly spread and divided. The complex split between military and civil police, the paramilitary fire department, and regional and forensic specialists, reflects Brazil’s history and federal make-up, and shapes both the locus of its decision-making powers and funding. But there are positive, empowering aspects too. Because the state – and not the central government in Brasilia – is principally responsible for funding development and policing among other administrative activities, there is greater policy latitude.

For example, 40 kilometres south on the road towards Salvador is the port of Suape. Breaking ground in 1978, it has attracted more than $20 billion in private investment across petro-chemical, auto distribution, power-generation, shipbuilding, plastic, wind power, and building material clusters among others. Two 100-metre tall red gantries signal the location of Atlântico Sul shipyard, the biggest in the southern hemisphere, a joint Brazilian-Japanese concern with 6,000 workers producing oil rigs and, to date, ten Suezmax 150,000 tonne tankers. Beyond that, a vehicle terminal, container and general cargo berths, and a fuel and gas terminal to feed Petrobras’ diesel plant and the world’s largest plastic tube plant, an Italian-Brazilian concern.

File photo from 30 May 2011, showing oil refinery plant Abreu e Lima, from Brazil's oil company Petrobras, in the port of Suape, in the state of Pernambuco, Brazil. EPA/MARCELO SAYAO

Photo: File photo from 30 May 2011, showing oil refinery plant Abreu e Lima, from Brazil’s oil company Petrobras, in the port of Suape, in the state of Pernambuco, Brazil. EPA/MARCELO SAYAO

The construction of Suape was motivated by the state governor. He could do so since it has largely been funded by state-derived revenue ($2 billion’s worth) and ten times this amount in private investment in the terminals and facilities. Ongoing expansions are funded from the operating profits generated by Suape. The port provides direct and indirect employment for 35,000, while its expansion plans will see it double its container capacity to 1.5 million TEUs, and expand its cargo throughput which has already increased rapidly from a modest 4.3 million tonnes in 2005 to 20 million in 2015, projected to grow to 60 million tonnes by 2020.

Suape’s success shows just how big development thoughts have to be matched by political will, the commitment of funding and, all important, skills if they are to descend from hot air to bricks and mortar. This commitment is not just among business matters either. Recife’s planners are concerned with ways to reduce the poverty and divides encountered on the police patrol.

Recife’s problems of dearth and excess, living cheek by jowl, is not unique. Brazil is a highly unequal society. It’s Gini co-efficient measures 52.9, placing it in the worst 15 world-wide, but better than South Africa, which is in number two position at 63.4.

In No One Writes to the Colonel, Gabriel García Márquez tells the story of a retired military man struggling with poverty and the corruption of local officials, forgotten in a small town, hoping to get the pension promised 15 years before. Marquez poignantly explores the impact of government and unemployment during a time of violence and political tension. He may have been describing Colombia in the 1950s, but could so easily have been writing about contemporary Brazil or more than a few places in Africa.

Rodrigo Bastos estimated that more than 10,000 lives were saved by the Pacto Pela Vida since 2007. But he is “ashamed to admit” that the province of Pernambuco still experiences 25 violent deaths monthly. And the levels of crime have picked up again as Brazil’s economy has dipped, rising by 10% in 2014 and already over 12% during 2015, as funding for the Pacto has fallen away in a time of budget austerity, and jobs are increasingly hard to find.

If he sought one thing, Colonel Cruz says that he “wants 100 % more men than I have today”. He may not get this for some time as Brazil’s economy struggles, beset by low commodity prices and political scandal. Not only is this reducing the funding available, but it is likely to reduce job opportunities which, together with drugs and a lack of education, lie at the heart of the criminal problem.

These woes with crime, unemployment and social dislocation do not augur well for Africa on the cusp of a massive increase in its urban population. As it doubles its population over the next generation, sub-Saharan Africa is projected to be the most rapidly urbanising region, with the percentage of people living in its cities rising from 40 percent today to 56 percent by 2050. Lagos, for example, will swell from today’s estimated 25 million to 50 million by 2030, surpassing Cairo as Africa’s most populous city. Its population was just 1.4 million in 1970 and five million in 1991.

Photo: Greg Mills and Dickie Davis with Colonel Cruz.

If a country as sophisticated as Brazil is struggling with its urban challenges, what hope for Africa with comparatively less diversified economies and educated populations? What is necessary, as Brazil shows, is a long-term boost via education, and a short-term focus on getting the security and infrastructure pieces right. And getting these right will require listening to the local population. DM

Dr Mills and Major General Davis are with the Brenthurst Foundation; Dr White is at GIBS.

Main photo by Waterlat Gobacit.

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