In an incident that may have escaped notice internationally, three taxi drivers were shot to death recently in Santana do Livramento, a small Brazilian town on the border with Rivera, Uruguay. The incident deeply frightened many in the region and drew heightened attention when, just 48 hours later, three more drivers were shot in Porto Alegre—a southern Brazilian city about 300 miles from the border.
Santana do Livramento and Rivera are both known for their tranquility, as well as the easy walk across the border with little risk of being stopped by authorities. The police quickly denied a connection to organized crime—a claim confirmed when 21-year-old Lucas Barcelos Silva, a disgruntled former member of the Brazilian army with a criminal record, confessed to all six killings, claiming that he was angry about his unemployment. In 2010, he was dismissed from the Brazilian Army due to “lack of discipline and erratic behavior,” and has several robberies on his record.
Although the homicides were unrelated to organized crime, they renewed concerns about border control in Brazil and Uruguay. According to the Civil Police of Rio Grande do Sul, Silva used a .22 pistol—a semi-automatic weapon banned in Brazil since 1997 that is common in Uruguay and Argentina. Silva testified that the pistol came from a 15-year-old friend in Santana do Livramento, who likely acquired it in Uruguay or Argentina and smuggled it across the border.
A lack of border security personnel makes Brazil’s approximately 10,625 miles of border especially porous to drug and weapons smuggling and human trafficking. The Brazilian Federal Police employs only 900 agents to monitor its border with eight countries. By comparison, the United States employs approximately 21,400 border patrol agents to control its 1,969-mile border with Mexico and 5,525-mile border with Canada. Making matters worse is the fact that officers on the Brazil-Uruguay border often pass over locals in searches to avoid holding up commuter traffic.Professor Fernando Salla, a sociologist and coordinator at Núcleo de Estudos da Violência (Centre for the Study of Violence—NEV) at the Universidade de São Paulo, says that although a loosely-guarded border is not the main reason for drug trade and other organized crime in Brazil, it reinforces the status quo.
The World Drug Report 2012 published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime revealed that Brazil was the world’s second-largest market for cocaine last year behind the United States, where cocaine consumption has been falling. A recent survey from the Universidade Federal de São Paulo reported that Brazil is the world’s top crack consumer, with over 2 million users.
“To make Brazil safer, we need to significantly improve the security in airports and ports…We need [support from] the three levels of government and good cooperation between neighbor countries,” according to Salla. Still, he pointed out that Brazil’s border is unlikely to experience Mexico’s very high rates of violence. “Mexico shares a border with a country that is much, much more advanced socially. There is no similar case in South America, even though Brazil is a huge consumer (of drugs).”
Salla pointed out that Uruguay and Argentina—the most socially and economically developed regions along the Brazilian border—are not the main origins of Brazil’s drug supply. Brazil’s top supplier of cocaine is Bolivia, followed by Paraguay. Yet Osmar Terra, a legislator from Rio Grande do Sul, says that crack cocaine use has risen sharply in his southern state. In 1997, there were no registered cases involving crack cocaine in Rio Grande do Sul. Now, nearly half of the state’s 1,700 homicides committed each year have been linked to crack.
During a summit in Porto Alegre earlier this month, the secretary of public safety of Rio de Janeiro, José Mariano Beltrame, called for more federal assistance to fight organized crime. “A very good resort would be if the army would get involved in the equation, helping to protect our border. Also, they could help with urban security if they are well-trained,” he said.
While Rio de Janeiro’s controversial urban security practices have made plenty of headlines lately, border cities are relying on technical alternatives to putting more boots on the ground to combat crime. “Twin cities like Santana do Livramento and Rivera are hard to control,” said Emerson Wendt, the chief of intelligence of Rio Grande do Sul’s civil police, adding that is why intelligence services “mainly use technology and data centers to face these difficulties.”