09/10/2014 03:46 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

Brazil's Killing Fields

Brazil is the world's murder capital. More than 1.3 million homicides have occurred there since 1980. And the problem appears to be getting worse. The rate of killing has risen by 150 percent over the past three decades to 56,000 a year. This grisly toll cannot be put down to a so-called culture of violence. To the contrary: These preventable deaths are a result of policy failures. Brazil's violent crime wave can be reversed.

The acceleration of homicidal violence is due to a combination of risk factors. Notwithstanding the country's genuinely impressive strides in reducing poverty, persistent income inequality keeps crime rates high. Gun availability also plays a role, insofar as more 70 percent of fatal victims are shot by firearms. The heavy handed response to low-level drug traffickers and users -- Brazil is purportedly one of the largest consumers of cocaine in the world -- is similarly destructive.

Arguably the most important factors predicting the profile of homicide victims are ethnicity, sex, age and education. In Brazil, as in other parts of the world, the most likely victim of murder is a young, unemployed black male who has yet to complete primary education. Although just half of Brazilians self-identify themselves as black, they nevertheless account for almost 70 percent of all violent deaths.

Since 2000, the proportional killing of young black males has risen while simultaneously decreasing among their white counterparts. To put this in numerical terms, a black adolescent is 2.8 times more likely to be murdered in Brazil than a white teenager. And in northern states like Paraiba, the ratio increases to a terrifying 18:1.

While gang violence ravages parts of some Brazilian cities, the country's military police are often involved in the deaths of black males, including adolescents. There is a long-standing ethos among police forces condoning the use of extreme force. Slogans in some social media networks reinforce these biases claiming that "good bandits are dead bandits." The result is routine crackdowns in low-income areas where the "enemy" resides.

The statistics on police violence are chilling. Each year, they are purportedly involved in around 2,000 killings, classified in the sanitized language of criminal statistics as "resistance deaths." In Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, military police are alleged to have killed more than 11,000 people over the past decade. The United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings has repeatedly observed that Brazilian police are among the planet's most dangerous.

Many, if not most, of those dying while "resisting arrest" show signs of gunshot wounds to the back of the head, neck or back. There have been some attempts by Brazilian law enforcement agencies to reverse these trends, including innovative community policing strategies and decrees prohibiting police from administering first aid (since they often kill suspects). But these measures are few and far between.

Brazil's criminal justice system reinforces the status quo. On the one hand, young black males are more susceptible than other population groups to racial profiling. They are also more likely to be convicted of trafficking in drugs, rather than consumption. And since they are less likely to afford a lawyer, they tend to receive longer prison sentences. According to one analysis, almost 60 percent of Brazil's roughly 550,000 inmates are between 18 and 29. And most of them are black.

Fortunately, a lively debate is emerging on the unacceptability of police violence, together with the persistent biases confronting poorer suspects in the Brazilian judicial system. More and more citizens are questioning the wisdom of a development model that tolerates lethal violence on an industrial scale. There are also startling reports emerging of the sizeable burden of these premature deaths to the economy, estimated at 2.3 percent of GDP or $43 billion a year.

Brazilians across the political spectrum are outraged about the high rates of impunity associated with homicidal violence. Just 8 percent of homicides result in a conviction. This compares to 64 percent in the United States and 80 percent in Canada. Yet curiously, federal spending on public security actually declined since 2011 to less than 0.4 percent of GDP. What is urgently needed is a new pact to tackle Brazil's homicide epidemic.

Notwithstanding growing public anxiety, Brazil's federal authorities have yet to construct a national homicide reduction strategy. Instead, the problem is punted to states and municipalities who often lack the necessary resources to adequately respond. If Brazil is to change course, its political leaders from the national to the local levels must acknowledge the sheer dimensions of the country's killing fields. If they do not, this bitter harvest will continue without end.