Recent changes in crime-fighting tactics demanded by Brazil’s Supreme Court have called into question the efficacy of the state’s militarized approach in Rio.

The first six months of 2020 painted a bleak security picture in Brazil, with the year shaping up to be the worst on record in terms of people killed by police. At least 3 148 people were killed by police throughout the country – an increase of 7% compared to the same period in 2019. The number of police officers killed in Brazil also increased in the first six months of 2020, by 24%. Overall, Brazil experienced a 6% increase in violent deaths during the first six months of 2020, even with fewer people on the streets due to stay-at-home restrictions.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Governor Wilson Witzel of Rio de Janeiro state have both argued that empowering the police is the only way to defeat the country’s highly developed criminal organizations. During his 2018 campaign, Bolsonaro pledged an all-out war on crime, sometimes referred to as política de confronto (‘confrontational policy’). As president, Bolsonaro promised that criminals would ‘die in the streets like cockroaches’ and that he would ‘dig graves’ under anti-crime laws advanced by his administration. In Rio, Witzel implemented a ‘zero tolerance’ policy, permitting the strafing of suspected criminals from helicopters.

This security approach has exacted an astounding human toll. Police killed more than 1 800 people in Rio de Janeiro alone last year, and the numbers from the first half of 2020 suggested that the lethal trend of confrontation was only increasing. But many Brazilians have come to accept these tactics as an unavoidable aspect of the fight against organized crime, with Brazil’s leaders pointing to the fall in violent crime in 2019 in many urban areas normally plagued by criminal activity as proof of the approach’s success.

However, a recent development has provided a rare opportunity for scholars to analyze the efficacy of alternative crime-fighting strategies. In early June, Brazil’s Supreme Court issued a preliminary decision, later upheld, suspending police raids in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas during the coronavirus pandemic, except under extraordinary circumstances that require the approval of the state prosecutor’s office.

It is too early to draw firm conclusions about the effects of the Supreme Court’s decision, but recent data from Rio de Janeiro provides reason to be cautiously optimistic about the efficacy of a less militarized approach. After the Brazilian Supreme Court suspended the raids, killings by police in June and July fell by 76% in Rio compared to the same period last year, having been up 43% in April 2020 compared to the same month in 2019. (Since the restrictions went into effect, the police have still engaged in nearly 100 operations in favelas, authorized by the state prosecutor.)

Initial statistics of homicide rates in Rio also point to a downward trend. In March and April 2020, just as the coronavirus increased its grip on Brazil, Rio’s criminal factions ramped up their activity, contributing to an increase in homicides in both of those months. However, violent deaths in Rio during the first two months of the moratorium on police raids fell by 40% compared to the same period in 2019. Further, the overall homicide rate in Rio de Janeiro experienced an 11% reduction in the first half of 2020, meaning that a cessation in police raids has not interrupted this larger downward trend. Indeed, Rio is currently experiencing its lowest rate of violent crime since 1999, but owing to the aforementioned spikes in March and April 2020, it is likely that the overall figures are predominantly driven by a steep drop in recent months.

Of course, the biggest caveat to any reduction in Rio’s homicide rate is the overlay of the coronavirus pandemic and its still-unknown effect on organized crime. In countries such as El Salvador, which also suffers from endemic violence at the hands of criminal groups, stay-at-home orders have curtailed homicides by keeping its notorious street gangs inside. In Mexico and Brazil, however, organized crime groups may have adapted better to the pandemic circumstances. For instance, cocaine interdiction at European ports has risen 20% over the past year, with most ships originating from the Brazilian ports Santos and Fortaleza, where organized crime groups are known to operate. Rio’s criminal groups have also grown their governance capacities (often through highly publicized activities) and diversified their business models during the pandemic.

A spike in Rio’s homicide rate would usually accompany rising narcotics exports and an increase in governance capacity in the favelas. The reduction in Rio’s homicides is certainly a welcome reversal of this past trend. Nevertheless, several factors urge caution when drawing conclusions: the data is limited; violent crime is a notoriously difficult phenomenon to predict; criminal groups may be biding their time against the state; and there could be another as-yet-unidentified variable bearing on these statistics, beyond the Supreme Court’s temporary prohibition of police raids. Rio de Janeiro is also poised to experience another period of state instability that could affect its security policy, due to the removal of Witzel from office in early September on charges of corruption. Further, with signs that Brazil’s coronavirus outbreak may be easing, the Supreme Court may decide to reverse the ban on police raids as stay-at-home orders lift, reducing the prospects for a paradigm shift in Brazil’s crime-fighting strategies.

Although the dynamics between favela communities and criminal groups goes well beyond the use of violence, the homicide rate is still one of the best proxies to gauge the effectiveness of crime-fighting strategies in Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro – usually one of Brazil’s most violent, murder-prone and insecure cities – crime is at a historic low. A reduction in Rio’s homicide rate alongside a dramatic decline in the number of police raids indicates that state and federal governments may be overstating the centrality of these raids to homicide-reduction efforts. But whether such preliminary evidence persuades Brazil to commit in the long term to the difficult work of dismantling criminal groups without repeated and violent incursions remains an open question.