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Brazil's Undeclared War on Young Black Men

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Co-authored with Tatiana Moura and Jose Luis Ratton

A video from Brazil has attracted attention around the world, and it has nothing to do with the image-boosting World Cup and Olympics images the country wants to tout.

Instead, it shows three decapitated inmates at a prison in the northern state of Maranhão. They were killed by rival prisoners, the ones who made the video. Look for just a few seconds and you'll notice that, not surprisingly, the victims and the perpetrators are young, poor, dark-skinned men. Inside the prison system and across the country, they are victims of an undeclared war. They're not just symbols of Brazil's chronic poverty and inequality. They're also victims of manhood.

So many men have been killed in Brazil in the last 30 years that there are now 4 million more women than men in the country --roughly the population of Los Angeles, California. Millions of families in Brazil are missing sons, fathers, husbands and brothers because of drug turf battles, bar fights that escalated, and random killings. Brazil now has an average of 26 homicides per every 100,000 people in Brazil (using 2010 data). And while overall homicide rates have fallen in the country, they have not come down for black men.

These data are not new. The troubling part is how long and how persistent the homicide rates for black men in Brazil are in light of how much life has improved for the poorest segment of the population. In the last fifteen years, Brazil has seen an impressive and unprecedented reduction of social inequality. Brazil's poor have more money in their pockets and their children have more access to education and health. But these important achievements have had little effect on reducing homicide rates among low-income young men.

Many of the young men who are murdered - or murder - in Brazil are connected to drug trafficking gangs. Most of these homicides occur in urban areas, where the drug trade emerged as a response to limited employment and limited presence of the state, and where there is easy access to firearms. It is also related to competition for reputation, for recognition and honor and for prestige among female partners by young men who have few things that make them feel like real men.

Brazil's police, who should be part of the solution, are too often part of the problem. Brazil still has a military police - a police force that operates mostly within a military logic of enemies and insurgents rather than a logic of public safety. While there have been some reforms in recent years, in many parts of the country they are among the most violent and lethal police forces worldwide. Instead of ending the drug wars, they are too often part of the drug wars. In 2007 police killed 1,330 people in the state of Rio de Janeiro alone. In one recent case, 15 police officers in Rio de Janeiro from an elite police unit were charged with torturing, killing and concealing the corpse of a man from a favela. The man had been tortured during interrogation about drug dealers operating near his house. This hardly seems like a "pacifying" force.

In the midst of this violence, the government more often fans the flame of the storm than reduces it. In Rio de Janeiro, for instance, in an attempt to reduce gang violence, the government implemented Pacifying Police Units (UPP) starting in 2008, a program that permanently located military police units in low income areas. In the past 5 years, 36 UPPs have been inaugurated in Rio. While they have made significant progress in reducing the reach and power of drug gangs, they are also abusive of community residents and too often violent toward the community members they are supposed to protect.

The war on Brazil's young black men will only be resolved when policymakers and the public in general understand how poverty and inequality in Brazil feed into how we raise and socialize boys, and the racist, social exclusion that men of African descent face. We need to acknowledge that there is a problem and call it what it is - an epidemic in the lives of young, black men. Those killed are the most marginalized. Their families don't have access to lawyers and the media. Their deaths are too often forgotten and considered part of the reality of life.

We need to understand the specific needs of young black men in Brazil. For them violence and social exclusion have become normal, encouraged and embedded in their everyday lives. They take this violence home with them, to their communities and families. And in a country that prides itself on not being racist, they are a reminder that the black population in Brazil is still far more likely to be poor, to be out of school, and to be murdered.

Finally, we need to address the issue of what it means to be men. There is a hyper-masculine culture deeply rooted in the police force, drug gangs, the media and the general population in Brazil. Violence by police is tolerated, violence in the media is tolerated, violence at football matches is tolerated, violence by parents is tolerated and violence against indigenous groups is tolerated. The connection between violence and manhood in Brazil must be severed.

If these issues are not addressed, young children will be added to the long list of victims of this undeclared conflict. Household surveys carried out by Promundo find that a third of boys report being beaten in their homes, and a third experienced violence in their community. At the same time, more than one in five young men in some low-income communities say they have been harassed or physically attacked by police. In another recently conducted study, children as young as 4 years of age reported through drawings and story-telling that they were scared of men in their communities, particularly ones in police uniforms.

Brazil is a vast, varied and amazing country of tremendous potential that is increasingly assuming a role on the international stage. But its potential will only be fully achieved when it ends the subtle and overt racism and the social exclusion behind the war on its young black men.

Correction: This post originally cited the figure of 56.4 homocides per every 100,000 people in Brazil using 2010 data. The correct number is 26 per 100,000.

Tatiana Moura is Director of Promundo-Brazil a non-profit organization that works internationally to engage men and boys to promote gender equality and end violence against women. Jose Luis Ratton is Professor, Federal University of Pernambuco. Gary Barker is International Director of Promundo-US.