As Prosperity Rises in Brazil’s Northeast, So Does Drug Violence (N.Y. Times)

A house in Nova Constituinte, in Salvador, is protected by a makeshift fence. The arrival of crack cocaine has been particularly devastating there, and the number of murders in Bahia increased 430 percent between 1999 and 2008. Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times.

Published: August 29, 2011

SALVADOR, Brazil — Jenilson Dos Santos Conceição, 20, lay face down on the rough concrete, his body twisted, sandals still on his feet, as the blood from his 14 bullet wounds stained the sloped alleyway.

A small crowd of residents watched dispassionately as a dozen police officers hovered around the young man’s lifeless body.

“He was followed until he was executed right here,” said Bruno Ferreira de Oliveira, a senior investigator. “They wanted to make sure he was dead.”

Mr. Conceição was the third person found murdered in the state of Bahia on that July day. By day’s end, 6 would die violently, and by month’s end 354 had been killed, the police said.

The geography of violence in Brazil has been turned on its head the past few years. In the southeast, home to Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and many of the country’s most enduring stereotypes of shootouts and kidnappings, the murder rate actually dropped by 47 percent between 1999 and 2009, according to a study by José Maria Nóbrega, a political science professor at the Federal University of Campina Grande.

But here in the northeast, a poor region that benefited most from the wealth-transfer programs that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva championed during his eight years in office, the murder rate nearly doubled in the same 10-year period, turning this area into the nation’s most violent, Dr. Nóbrega found.

Salvador, the region’s largest city, is one of Brazil’s biggest tourist draws, the gateway to some of the country’s most spectacular beaches. And like Rio, it is preparing to co-host the 2014 World Cup. So the authorities here are taking a page from Rio’s playbook, trying to grapple with the surge in violent crime by establishing permanent police units in violent areas frequented by drug traffickers.

The community police forces being installed here are similar to the “police pacification units” the Rio government has been using — to both great fanfare and controversy — since 2008 to stem drug violence there.

The northeast has long been plagued by crime, but the increase illustrates how Brazil’s economic boom is causing drug-related violence — the main cause for the homicide scourge — to migrate to other parts of the country as traffickers seek new markets, straining local police forces, according to both Dr. Nóbrega and local officials.

The same economic wave that put more money in millions of poor Brazilians’ pockets, especially here in the north, has also stimulated more drug trafficking and the deadly crime associated with it, officials here contended. Drug traffickers, realizing the potential of a stronger market, have focused more heavily on the northeast, resulting in drug wars and addiction-fueled violence, they said.

“If the consumer market is booming, the drug trafficker will come here as well,” said Jaques Wagner, the governor of Bahia. “The social progress in Brazil is visible. But at the same time we still have trouble with drug trafficking and with a lack of respect for human life.”

In the states of Bahia and Alagoas, especially, there has been an explosion of violence in the past decade. The number of murders in Bahia grew by 430 percent, to 4,709, between 1999 and 2008, Dr. Nóbrega said, and last year the state’s murder rate of 34.2 per 100,000 residents was higher than Rio’s, which fell to 29.8. (Bahia officials said that after leveling off in 2010, homicides were down 13 percent through July 2011 compared with the first seven months of 2010.)

Travel agencies say they are concerned about the rise in violent crime in Bahia’s slums — as well as the drug-fueled petty assaults in Pelourinho, Salvador’s colorful historic center.

“Salvador, right now, is not ready for the World Cup by any stretch, and they are starting to realize that,” said Paul Irvine, the director of Dehouche, a travel agency in Rio de Janeiro that organizes trips to both cities.

Governor Wagner shrugged off such assertions, noting that Bahia holds a Carnaval celebration every year where more than one million people take to the streets, with 22,000 police officers providing security.

“We have gone four years without a homicide on the parade route,” he said. “For me, police readiness for the World Cup won’t be any problem at all.”

Rio’s violent slums have been characterized by battles between the police and heavily armed drug gangs that have controlled large areas. But in the northeast, security officials contend, people have historically settled disputes on their own — neighbor to neighbor, with deadly impunity.

“The northeast is used to seeking justice with its own hands,” said Mauricio Teles Barbosa, the secretary of security in Bahia. “They do not believe in the police because they were the police. They were the colonels, the outlaws that sought justice without the participation of the state.”

Mr. Wagner argued that these attitudes toward violence, along with an indifference shown by the state in providing police protection and social services, allowed murders to go largely unchecked. But more rampant drug trafficking, fueled in part by criminal gangs operating out of São Paulo, has greatly worsened the situation, Mr. Barbosa said.

The arrival of crack cocaine has been particularly devastating. In Nova Constituinte, a community on the outskirts of Salvador that sprouted on a former banana plantation, a series of drug-related killings has stalked the area for the past five years, including the massacre of six teenagers caught in the crossfire of rival gangs, said Arnaldo Anselmo, 42, a community leader.

Gildasio Oliveira Silva said that drug traffickers twice tried to kill his teenage son, who had fallen prey to crack and owed his dealers money. Last December, he said, they gunned down his wife, Ana Maria Passos ou Assis, 39, as she was cleaning the bathroom of Mr. Silva’s small convenience store along Nova Constituinte’s main avenue.

“The violence has gotten worse here,” said Mr. Silva, 68, a former police officer. “And it’s all related to drugs.”

After becoming governor in 2007, Mr. Wagner vowed to build up the police and try to stem the surging violence. He has added 7,000 new police officers in the past four years and authorized 3,500 more this year.

Bahia inaugurated its first community police unit in Calabar, a poor enclave surrounded by more expensive high-rises. Since opening in April with 120 officers, no homicides have been reported, said Capt. Maria de Oliveira Silva, who heads the unit.

“In the last three years, you didn’t go a month without someone getting killed here,” said Lindalva Reis, 58, who has lived in Calabar for 38 years.

Three more community police units are scheduled to open over the next year near Nova Constituinte.

Like the units in Rio, the officers being selected are mostly rookies, to try to cut down on corruption and the more aggressive habits of some older officers.

Unlike in Rio, the installation of the new units here has not required first clearing out entrenched drug gangs with bloody police and military operations that can last weeks.

To counter criticism that its police have struggled to solve crimes, the Bahia State government established a dedicated homicide department earlier this year, with 150 officers focused on murder investigations.

Among the challenges of the new unit is rooting out “extermination groups,” militias composed of police officers who have practiced vigilante justice and been suspected in dozens of murders, said Arthur Gallas, the homicide unit’s director.

Then there is the mountain of unresolved cases. In the new department’s offices, investigators recently pored over stacks of files containing 1,500 unsolved homicides dating from before 2007.

But the new push is still a work in progress.

At the crime scene of Mr. Conceição, the police did not set up security tape to prevent evidence contamination. “Preserving evidence is very difficult here,” said Helder Cunha, a crime scene investigator, noting that a proposal to require crime scene tape in Bahia had yet to be put into practice.

Myrna Domit contributed reporting from São Paulo.