TODAY BRAZIL – Famous for its party atmosphere, Bahia’s capital city of Salvador suffers from violence, drug trafficking and social inequality – against all of which the government has bolstered its fights.

Military police officers watch over the Calabar favela in Salvador, the state capital of Bahia. In 2011, the city installed its first community security base in the favela. (Courtesy of Alberto Maraux/Public Safety Secretariat of the State of Bahia)
Military police officers watch over the Calabar favela in Salvador, the state capital of Bahia. In 2011, the city installed its first community security base in the favela. (Courtesy of Alberto Maraux/Public Safety Secretariat of the State of Bahia)

Military police officers watch over the Calabar favela in Salvador, the state capital of Bahia. In 2011, the city installed its first community security base in the favela. (Courtesy of Alberto Maraux/Public Safety Secretariat of the State of Bahia)

From 2000 to 2010, the number of deaths from firearms increased 158% in Salvador, jumping from 619 in 2000 to 1,596 in 2010, according to the 2013 Violence Map by sociologist Julio Jacobo Waiselfisz.

Research showed the increase in the number of violent deaths during the past decade was seen not just in Salvador, but in almost all of the state capitals of the Brazilian Northeast.

One factor that might be causing the increase in violence is the growth of the market for narcotics in the city, according to Luiz Claudio Lourenço, a researcher from the Federal University of Bahia’s Laboratory for the Study of Public Safety, Civics and Society.

“Nowadays, drugs are consumed by the masses – they’re no longer limited to Brazil’s upper classes. Consumption is widespread,” Lourenço said. “But since drugs aren’t legal, consumers wind up getting caught in the crossfire of the drug trade, along with drug traffickers and police officers.”

About 70% of the murders in the metropolitan region of Salvador are related to the drug trade, said Mauricio Teles Barbosa, the secretary of the Public Safety Secretariat of the State of Bahia (SSP-BA).

“The murders are the result of confrontations, territorial disputes, debt collections … which all are drug-related issues,” Barbosa said. “Crack is the primary product in this market. Crack is now the biggest national issue in terms of health care and public safety.”

Barbosa took over the SSP-BA in 2011, when Bahia launched its Pact for Life program, aimed at bringing together the work of the legislative and judicial branches, the Public Ministry and the Public Defender’s Office in their violence prevention efforts.

The secretary’s duties include combating drug trafficking with a policy that features goals and oversight of police activity; an increase in the number of police officers and operations targeting drug traffickers; and the installation of community security bases.

There are currently 12 community bases in Salvador, all of which adhere to the community outreach policy of the Pacifying Police Units of Rio de Janeiro.

This collection of SSP-BA initiatives has led to a reduction in the number of deaths, according to Barbosa.

A statement released in January by the SSP-BA showed that, in comparison with the previous year, 2013 showed a 14.7% decrease in the number of intentional lethal violent crimes, such as homicides and thefts involving murder, in the metropolitan region of Salvador.

“The city had 126 fewer deaths due to violent causes than it did in 2012,” Barbosa said.

Barbosa added 52 drug kingpins in Bahia have been arrested since 2007.

“But they have already been replaced by others. The work of combating drug trafficking is always ongoing and there’s no endpoint,” he said. “That’s why our policy has been to occupy the most critical areas with community security bases.”

The feeling they are rowing upstream also is shared by Lourenço.

“Drugs won’t cease to exist – that’s why we need to learn how to deal with drugs, through a health care policy, taking care of users and carrying out preventive work,” he said.

Social inequality also may have contributed to the violence in Salvador during the period covered by the Violence Map, despite the increase in family income among the poorest economic classes and the expansion of formal employment in the region.

According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the per capita income of the poorest 20% increased about 70% from 2004 to 2012 in Brazil, while the richest 40% had an increase of 22% in the same period. The IBGE also revealed that the formal employment rate grew by 45% in Salvador between 2002 and 2012.

“The data relating to employment and income are positive, but social inequality is still present in Salvador and in other cities in the Brazilian Northeast,” Lourenço said. “This inequality is one of the hypotheses that can explain the increase in violence.”

Lourenço’s observations are echoed by Tania Cordeiro, a member of the Community Forum to Combat Violence in Salvador, an organization created in Salvador in 1996 to propose public-private initiatives against violence.

“The values related to consumption have grown to a point where human existence has become confused with the ability to consume,” Cordeiro said. “If we compare the ‘brand values’ needed to ‘be someone’ with the economic gains of the poorest in society, there is a large disparity that is unfavorable to these classes.”

Broadening the debate beyond the issue of drug trafficking, Cordeiro pointed out the word “violence” can refer to a variety of events, from least harmful to lethal. However, she noted an increase in the banality of violence.

“In the face of violent deaths, there’s a tendency to disregard the small incidents. Therefore, we consider practices to be ‘nonviolent’ that might actually be contributing to an increase in violence,” Cordeiro said. “Cutting lines, cutting someone off in traffic and cursing people out are some examples of this.”