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The Slaughter of Brazil's Black Men

Nacho Doce / Reuters

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 many are touting.

Instead, it shows three decapitated inmates at a prison in the northern state of Maranhão. They were killed by rival prisoners, who had the nerve to film the video themselves. Look for just a few seconds and you'll notice that, not surprisingly, the victims and the perpetrators are young, poor, dark-skinned men. They're not just symbols of Brazil's chronic poverty and inequality. They're also victims of its culture of hyper-masculinity.

So many men have been killed in Brazil in the last 30 years that there are now roughly 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 25 homicides per every 100,000 people in Brazil. 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 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 15 years, Brazil has seen an impressive and unprecedented reduction of poverty. 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 who 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 easy access to firearms. Without many things that make them feel "masculine," these men use violence to compete for reputation and honor among female partners.

Brazil's police are too often a part of the problem. Brazil has a military-style police force whose modus operandi is too often the defeat of enemies rather than the protection of the public. While there have been some reforms in recent years, in many parts of the country the police force is as violent as any in the world. In 2007, police killed 1,330 people in the state of Rio de Janeiro alone. In 2010, that number fell to 854, but by comparison, police in the entire U.S., with a population 20 times larger than Rio state's, killed 406 people in 2009.

In the midst of this violence, the government fans the flames more often than it extinguishes them 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 five 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 sometimes reportedly abusive of the community residents they are supposed to protect. 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 tortured during interrogation about drug dealers operating near his house. This hardly seems like a “pacifying” force.

The slaughter of and among Brazil's young black men will only be resolved when policymakers and the public understand how poverty, inequality and racist social exclusion feed into how we raise and socialize boys. 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 a man. A culture of hyper-masculinity is deeply rooted in Brazil’s police force, drug gangs, media, and general population. Violence by the police is tolerated, violence in the media is tolerated, violence at football matches is tolerated, violence by parents is tolerated, and violence among blacks and against indigenous groups is tolerated. The connection between violence and manhood in Brazil must be severed.

If this issue is not addressed, young children will be added to the long list of victims of this undeclared conflict. Household surveys carried out by our organization, Promundo, find that a third of boys report being beaten in their homes, and a third experience 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 the police. In another recent study we conducted, children as young as 4 years of age reported through drawings and storytelling that they were scared of men in their communities, particularly those in police uniforms.

Brazil is a vast and varied country that is increasingly assuming a role on the international stage. But its potential will only be fully achieved when it ends racism and social exclusion and breaks the fatal link between manhood and murderous violence.

Tatiana Moura is the director of Promundo-Brazil, a nonprofit organization that works internationally to engage men and boys to promote gender equality and end violence against women. Jose Luis Ratton is a professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco. Gary Barker is the international director of Promundo-U.S.

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