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Brazil Has 'a Ferguson Every Day'

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Like many expatriate Americans, I spent a lot of time in August staring at video replays of the protests roiling Ferguson, Missouri, and beyond. After all, the story line -- white cop shoots unarmed black man, streets erupt -- seemed only too familiar, one of those signal moments by which the U.S. is seen and judged by the rest of the world.

But when I commented on the tumult to a senior Brazilian political journalist in Rio de Janeiro, where I live, he seemed underwhelmed. "Ah, I heard about that," he said, laconically. Likewise, the Missouri grand jury's failure to indict the police officer who'd pulled the trigger got little more than a few angry tweets and Facebook rants.

My Brazilian friend was not uninterested, merely inured. Racism, rogue cops and rough justice are as familiar here as flip flops and palm trees.

Brazilian police killed 2,212 people last year, the Brazilian Forum of Public Safety, a national think tank, reported in a study published Nov. 9. Between them, report the authors, Brazilian state and federal police violence claimed more lives (11,200) in the last five years than did all U.S. police combined in the last 30 (11,090).

Unsurprisingly, twice as many blacks as whites in Brazil were victims of police violence in 2009, according to a recent study by economist Daniel Cerqueira. Another study by the University of Sao Carlos showed that even as blacks comprised 34 percent of the population of Sao Paulo, they numbered 58 percent of those killed by police. "Our police kill by the hundreds," said Ignacio Cano, a sociologist who specializes in the study of crime and police violence. "We have a Ferguson every day."

What's different, Cano added, is not just the scale of police violence but how the two societies react: the U.S. with protests and riots, Brazil with a collective shrug.  "There (in the U.S.) everyone agrees that all people are equal before the law. Here, there's no consensus, and many still believe that people from poor neighborhoods are dangerous or criminals, or both." He pointed to a storied national survey in 2008 in which 43 percent of those polled agreed that "a good criminal is a dead criminal."

Security experts argue that police are no better than the society they serve. "You can't expect a First World police in a Third World Society," said Jose Vicente da Silva, a former Sao Paulo police commander, now a public safety consultant. While Brazilian police shoot more than their U.S. counterparts, they also patrol a killing field. Brazil's murder rate, 22 per 100,000 inhabitants, is four times higher than that of the U.S.

Some of the most prominent victims are the cops themselves: 490 last year alone. But in a peculiarly Brazilian twist, 75 percent of the victims were murdered off-duty, when many garnish their pay, legally or not, by moonlighting as plainclothes security.

Occasionally, Brazilians speak out forcefully against the excesses. The hail of rubber bullets and pepper spray used to quell street demonstrations in the run-up to the World Cup triggered a national backlash. Then again, most of those demonstrating were iPhone-toting, middle-class, college-educated urbanites, not "favela" dwellers.

Yet any clamor for due process and police accountability seems to get drowned out by the visceral fear, and drama, of living with the quotidian reality of crime and violence: A macabre pastime in Brazil is to share police videos of anti-drug operations, such as last year's safari-like pursuit of a Rio drug trafficker machine-gunned from a police helicopter, or the 2012 task force that mowed down five suspects from the air then landed to tidy up the crime scene. Set next to that tableau of brutality and impunity, what went down in Ferguson feels very far away.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net