Much has been made and is being made of Rio’s post-Pacification upswing in crime, in particular in relation to the mega events Rio hosted last year and will host this summer. Of course, because of the newsworthiness of crime as a potential deterrent to attendance at the World Cup and Olympics, analyses are cropping up here and there, some more worthwhile than others and some with more authoritative claims than others. I happen to agree with the assessment that the spike in crime is a result of Pacification. The spike, not the crime, that is.
It is a well-known fact of favela life that crime in and around them is regulated to the extent that the Donos of the respective gangs (Amigos dos Amigos, Commando Vermelho, Terceiro Commando) prefer to keep police presence in their areas to a minimum, so they create their own rules. Obviously, muggings, robbery, carjacking, and the like are already illegal. But these laws, as witnessed currently, are sometimes observed based on the barometer of circumstance: Given sufficient desperation, the threat of arrest and jail time may not be deterrent enough when one balances the pros and cons of crime. On the other hand, it seems to me there are basically two options present when the enforcer of street crime is himself operating outside the confines of legality and is making up his own rules: (1) possibly the risks of transgression are that much less predictable and that much more intimidating, and/or (2) the enforcer is also your employer and provides monetary incentive for not pursuing street crime options.
I’m going to shoot from the hip and suggest that property crime, street crime, the sort of crime that is rising in Rio currently, is fundamentally crime of opportunistic, self-preservation. Just because it “takes all kinds,” I’m willing to admit that there is probably some fraction of people who have engaged in street crime because they love the thrill, or they’re after easy money, or whatever. However, I would bet dollars to donuts that most people commit that sort of crime because they’ve run out of other options. I think it’s something we can all kind of understand at the intuitive level because we’ve experience some level of hunger, we’ve been desperate in some way. If you haven’t been, imagine what it might do to you if you were. What it might do to your sense of civic engagement or rational decision-making. But beyond intuition, in the study of crime, mugging and murder are in different categories because they are, circumstantially and as cultural phenomena, quite different. There is no shortage of evidence to suggest that there is a negative correlation between employment and property crime. To the extent that people’s attention is occupied and their needs are met, the allure of property crime goes away. Recently, crime in general is up in Rio, but street crime is up dramatically more than other types. This is because most of the increase in crime is property crime of the sort that had been kept under wraps by the various Donos in the pre-Pacification era. Yet many analysts indicating the increase in crime since pacification don’t like to admit the correlation between Pacification and crime. Thus their knee-jerky solution: more cops. It’s a facile argument at best. It’s hacking at limbs when the roots are healthy and well.
But for a glimmer of hope, I offer a recent thought from Rio’s Security Secretary, José Mariano Beltrame, “Public security in Brazil has become synonymous with police,” he said. “This is wrong; it’s a myopic view of the issue.” I imagine that’s a hard learned lesson for him, after establishing the Pacification system and tripling investment in local law enforcement since he took office in 2007 only to see the subsequent upswing in crime. At any rate, I believe it. It rings true to what I believe about humanity that most people are basically all right. That most people, even people in desperate poverty, don’t want to misuse other people, to increase public fear and mistrust, and to degrade society with acts of aggression. I don’t believe it’s pure malice–which could be controlled effectively by threat of retribution–that is the root of property crime like carjacking, street mugging, and robbery.
I’m not a criminologist, and I’m sure there are exceptions, but I do know that human behavior for the most part follows a pretty narrow track. We all basically just want to take care of ourselves and those we care about–and as Seu Jorge pointed out in an interview recently, “in the favela it is not different.” Things will change in Rio. Things will get better. But it will take more than police and weapons and body armor and bullets. It will take a greater sense of taking care—taking of each other. It will follow the upswing in connection between the favela and the rest of the city. It will follow and upswing in meaningful employment and a sense of an individual belonging to the city and the city to the individual.