RIO DE JANEIRO -- Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro celebrated Friday after a crime index showed homicides fell to their lowest level in more than a decade during the first year of his term.
Brazil had 41,635 killings in 2019, down 19% from the prior year and the least number of homicides since 2007, when the so-called Violence Monitor index was launched. It is a partnership between the non-profit Brazilian Forum of Public Security, the University of Sao Paulo's Center for the Study of Violence, and news website G1, which published the data Friday.
“IN OUR GOVERNMENT HOMICIDES, VIOLENCE AND FALLACIES FALL!” an exultant Bolsonaro wrote on his Twitter account, sharing the G1 news report. “Our government extends a strong embrace to all the security agents of the country. Brazil continues on the right path.”
Bolsonaro, a far-right politician, made fighting crime and violence one of his signature campaign issues that ultimately swept him to the presidency in a country where people had grown weary of growing insecurity. He has deployed rhetoric that encourages violence against crime, including saying police officers who kill should be awarded medals rather than slapped with lawsuits.
In 2016, the most deadly year in the Violence Monitor's records, Brazil had nearly 60,000 homicides.
Robert Muggah, co-founder of security think tank Igarapé Institute, said the fall in homicides was indeed "stunning," but questioned the government's claim about its cause.
He said crimes began to fall early in 2018, before Bolsonaro won the presidential election, and noted that the leader signed an anti-crime bill to tackle violence just at the end of 2019.
“Although Bolsonaro and his supporters have sought to own recent improvements in public security, there are other factors at play that have little to do with their efforts,” Muggah said.
He and other security experts don't agree that more aggressive policing is responsible for better security indicators. They have offered other theories for the national improvement: individual states adopting new security policies, easing conflict between rival drug factions, demographic shifts, the transfer of gang members to federal prisons, stronger economic activity, and even proliferation of smart phones keeping young people off the streets.
Muggah said the various factors have influenced events in different degrees, but the impact of each is not clear.
Tough talk against crime has gained strength in Brazilian politics. Former police and military officers who mimicked Bolsonaro's rhetoric also rode his coattails to office in the nation's Congress and state assemblies. Residents of Brazil's two biggest cities, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, elected governors in 2018 who promised zero tolerance for crime.
In Rio and some other states, the decrease inf homicides has been accompanied by a jump in killings by police. Those aren't classified as homicides and are rarely investigated.