Rio de Janeiro 2019 homicides fall as police killings surge

RIO DE JANEIRO — The number of homicides in Rio de Janeiro plunged to a record low in 2019, while police killings surged to a previously unseen level in the same year, according to official figures.

There were 3,995 homicides in 2019, down 19% compared to the prior year, said the security institute for Rio de Janeiro state. It was the lowest number since the state began keeping records in 1991.

However, as the official homicide rate fell, killings by police surged 18% in 2019. They numbered 1,810, the greatest amount since the state began keeping records for such killings in 1998. The number of police killings fell every month through December to 124 since the high of 195 in July.

Police killings are not included in the tally of homicides, and human rights activists have sounded the alarm over a lethal approach that's rarely subject to scrutiny.

Rio Gov. Wilson Witzel celebrated the results on social media, saying “our security policy is generating positive results month after month.”

Witzel, who was elected in late 2018 on a law-and-order platform, has referred to criminals as “narco-terrorists” and proposed using helicopters as platforms for snipers, who could target anyone carrying large firearms. B ringing down crime is a priority for Witzel, who aims to shore up economic activity by boosting tourism. Rio is already a top destination, with tourists coming from around the world for Carnival and New Year's festivities.

Experts have highlighted that Rio's trend of falling crime began in 2018, before Witzel was sworn in on Jan. 1, 2019. Furthermore, it isn't correlated with more lethal policing in Rio — even during Witzel's administration — and it mirrors a national trend, according to Túlio Kahn, a sociologist and an associate at the non-profit group Brazilian Public Security Forum.

Theories abound as to the reason 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, and even proliferation of smart phones keeping young people off the streets. The most plausible explanation, Kahn says, is something else: improvement in Brazil's economy.

The decline “is happening in various Brazilian states, and in various crimes," he said by phone. "That has to do a lot, in my interpretation, to do with the economic crisis from 2014 to 2016. It was very strong, generalized throughout the country, and caused a spike in crime.”

Expansion of militias in Rio may also partly explain lower reports of shootouts in Rio. One estimate is that 2.2 million people in the metro area — out of more than 12 million residents — live under the thumb of militias. Originally made up of former police officers, firefighters and military men who wanted to combat lawlessness in their neighborhoods, they have come to be widely recognized as a large security threat themselves.

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