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Mayor in Brazil transforms 'deadliest' town

It has fallen from sixth to 298th on the country's Violence Map.

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As one indicator, the deadliest spot on the 2006 Violence Map – Coloniza, an Amazonian back-water – had a homicide rate of 164 per 100,000; last year's leader, Coronel Sapucaia, had just 107 per 100,000.

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Brazil passed a law in 2003 greatly restricting weapons sales and, though a more permanent law was rejected by voters two years later, that legislation got many guns off the streets, says Julita Lemgruber, director of the Security and Citizenship Study Center in Rio de Janeiro.

The police have also become more visible. In Vila Boa, the number of officers has risen from eight in 2005 to 12 today, and they have been given additional vehicles with which to operate.

Their job has been made significantly easier by a local law banning the sale of alcohol after midnight on weekdays. Ms. Lemgruber says similar legislation has been passed in other municipalities, especially in São Paulo, the country's biggest and most populous state.

"I'd estimate that 80 percent of all crime [here] involves alcohol," says Lt. Edir Guimaraes Sobrinho, Vila Boa's police chief. "I think closing bars and stopping people drinking into the wee hours, and putting more police on the streets – that benefits people. That is the big advance."

That move to more conspicuous policing is also being hailed as a success in big cities.

In Rio de Janeiro, the homicide rate has fallen from 46.1 per 100,000 in 2002 to 39.5 per 100,000 in 2006, according to police figures, which tend to be more conservative.

In Recife, Brazil's most violent major city, the rate has fallen from a high of 58.9 per 100,000 in 2001 to 53.9 per 100,000 last year, police say.

And in the state of São Paulo, the number of homicides has dropped from 12,800 in 1999 to 4,800 in 2007.

Officials there compare the improvement to the remarkable turnarounds witnessed in New York and in Bogotá, Colombia, two cities that drastically reduced their crime rates with crusading mayors and more intelligent policing.

"Our rate of reduction has been even more marked," said Tulio Kahn, coordinator of analysis and planning with the state police, at a press conference last month. "Those are cities. This is a state. We've seen a fall in 538 of the [state's] 645 municipalities. The reduction is widespread. And in the capital the decrease is even greater, 72 percent."

Experts caution that it's too soon to say if the drop in crime will continue. Brazil still has 14 million unlicensed weapons, according to government figures.

Current trends have nonetheless been refreshing. "For the first time in Brazilian history, we have had three years in which the measures of fatal violence have fallen," says Julio Jacobo Waiselfisz, author of the Violence Map. "There is light at the end of the tunnel."