Brazil: Profiting from insecurity

Workers assemble customized bulletproof cars in São Paulo, Brazil.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL – To watch the nightly news or pick up the morning papers in this metropolis of 20 million is to see a place where people are afraid to leave their homes for fear of murder, robbery, kidnapping, and assault.

But if government statistics are anything to go by, fear has sneaked up on reality and dealt it a solid blow to the head.

According to police, the number of murders and carjackings has fallen almost every year since 2000 and the homicide rate is now less than a quarter of what it was 10 years ago. News such numbers are down should be good for everybody – but the perception that crime is up persists. And some are positioned to gain from this unfounded anxiety.

Those in the business of providing security – or the sense of security – are doing quite well. The number of Brazilian cars being made bulletproof has jumped, from just 686 in 1996 to 6,982 last year, according to Abrablin, the association of companies that fit armor plating.

“The statistics for murder have fallen in São Paulo, but there are still a large number of smaller crimes like robberies and assaults and that causes a widespread sense of insecurity,” said Christian Conde, Abrablin’s president. “Insecurity is a major issue here.”

Exacerbating that sense of fear is the fact that victims of those petty crimes – often carried out in São Paulo’s chronic traffic jams – are more likely to have the money to make their cars bulletproof, said senior police analyst Túlio Kahn. The victims of murder, meanwhile, are predominantly poor, black youths who live on the impoverished edge of town.

One reality that cannot be ignored however, is economic, Mr. Kahn said. The more money people have, the more likely they are to spend it on making their car bulletproof. And although the economic crisis has not hit Brazil with the same force as the United States and Europe, the middle and upper classes have begun to be a bit more careful with their cash.

Thus, no one expects the bulletproofing trend to continue. Not even Mr. Conde.

“We expect the numbers to stagnate this year,” he said. “If they stay the same this year that will be positive.”

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