In Brazil, Race Is A Matter Of Life And Violent Death : Parallels In 2012, 56,337 people were murdered in Brazil. But that figure hides a color-coded truth: Homicide rates are actually way down — if you're white. If you're black? Murder rates are up 40 percent.

In Brazil, Race Is A Matter Of Life And Violent Death

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The way we think about inequality often has to do with money. Who has it? Who doesn't? But the growing inequality around the world can also be thought of in a different way. It can determine your chances of living or dying. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has the story from Brazil.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: On June 11, one day before the World Cup started, two policemen picked up three black teenagers in Rio de Janeiro. The three hadn't committed any crime, but they did have a history of petty offenses. The officers drove them up to the wooded hills above the city. One was shot in the head and killed. One was shot in the leg and in the back and left for dead. Another escaped. We know what happened that day because the police officers left their police car cameras on, and the video surfaced on Brazil's Globo TV.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We haven't even started beating you yet, and you're already crying, one cop says. Stop crying. You are crying too much. Be a man. But of course, the three boys weren't men. They were all between 14 and 16 years old. Then the cops are heard saying this.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Got to kill the three of them.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And finally they say, two less. If we do this every week, we can reduce their number. We can reach the goal. The goal they are reportedly referring to is crime reduction targets ahead of the World Cup.

Brazil is one of the most violent countries in the world. In 2012, 56,337 people were murdered. Compare that to the U.S. where fewer than 15,000 people died violently that year. And here is the thing about Brazil. Those statistics hide a color-coded truth. This country has actually gotten a lot safer for white people. In the past decades, homicide among whites have decreased 24 percent. But among the black population, they have increased 40 percent.

ROBERT MUGGAH: Those who are white tend to be able to afford themselves and avail themselves of greater security, and we're seeing reductions in homicide. Those who are black, who are unable to, as our society has become more and more unequal, are less able to secure those public goods. And as a result are seeing homicide rates going up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Robert Muggah from the IGARAPE Institute, a global security think tank based in Rio de Janeiro. He says wealthier whiter populations, especially in Brazil, can pay for additional security - be it in the form of electric fences or well-guarded apartment buildings or gated communities. The rest of the population has to deal with the police force that, in 2012, killed some 2,000 people or five a day.

MUGGAH: The elite and the upper middle classes, in a way, tolerate a kind of repression and, in fact, fuel it and seek it. I think that there is this sense among the white, whiter populations of Brazil that the black population is the source of much of the vice and decay and violence in society.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And they often live where that repression can't be seen. At least 22 percent of Rio de Janeiro's population are in favelas. But of those, more than half are Afro-Brazilian. To get into the vast complex of favelas known as Mare, our contact tells us we have to have the windows rolled down so the gangs can see our faces as we drive slowly in. The gangs here are worried about infiltrators from rival gangs as there's been a turf war going on in this part of the community. These are not checkpoints as such, but every few corners a group looks us over.

PATRICIA SALES VIANNA: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Those are traffickers, Patricia Sales Vianna, tells me. She's one of the directors of a local education NGO called the Redes da Mare. Before, the dealers would openly be selling their product on the street and would move around heavily armed. But Mare is now in the process of being pacified. It's a government program where certain favelas have full-time police put in them to drive the traffickers out. It's had mixed success.

Here in Mare, though, it's a slightly different story. The Army is actually in control. We get out of the car and walk around. Here in Mare they call it the occupation. Just in front of me there is a truck load of military. They are helmeted and heavily armed traveling through the streets. There are tanks. It has the feel of a war and not a policing operation.

VIANNA: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Patricia Sales Vianna explains we have, especially in Mare, very poor communities with very low resources - almost no opportunities. Less than 1 percent of Mare's population has attended a public university. There are 140,000 residents here year, and it's less than 1 percent, she says.

This is where the boy who was killed on June 11 was from. His name was Matteos Alves dos Santos. We are here to see his father, Thiago dos Santos. He lives in a tiny, crumbling house with mattresses on the floor and one shredded sofa providing a place to sit. The NGO director tells us he's a crack addict, though we are told this is one of his better days.

THIAGO DOS SANTOS: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thiago dos Santos tells me the only reason his son's death became known is because one of the other boys survived. If he hadn't been alive to talk about it, we would never know what happened, he says, just another statistic. He tells me the pain - there's no way to undo it. We leave Mare shortly after.

The two policemen who killed Matteos are standing trial. The boy who survived is in juvenile detention. He was caught trying to steal a bicycle. His lawyer has tried to get him into a witness protection program because he fears for his life, but he was told the state has no resources to protect the boy. The case has certainly been forgotten.

Nilson Bruno Filho is the only Afro-Brazilian head of a state public defender's office in all of Brazil. He has recently instituted a program in his native Rio de Janeiro to combat racism. And he explains why the case of the murdered kids didn't get much sustained attention here.

NILSON BRUNO FILHO: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a saying that black meat is cheaper, he says. People don't get shocked to see a dead black person because the person in their minds can be linked to crime. And in Brazil, if a person's linked to a crime, then he can be killed, he says. He says there is a two- tiered system in Brazil based on skin color.

FILHO: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says Brazil had one of the most brutal and prolonged periods of slavery in the Americas. In a way, it wasn't so long ago, he says. I think some people still see blacks as a thing. It's still a reality in our country, he says. We have a long road ahead. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.