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Brazil: Surveillance Society or Security Society?

January 27, 2009

What I am doing here is a broad survey of issues around surveillance. I am trying to get to grips with as wide a range of indicators as possible. One impression I have already – which as an impression may be partly or entirely wrong – is that although there are many forms of surveillance in evidence, Brazil is not fundamentally a ´surveillance society´ in the way that the UK is, or in the rather different way that Japan is: Brazil is much more a ´security society´. This is not to say, for example, that there are not many CCTV cameras in the country: Marta Kanashiro´s article in Surveillance & Society last year indicated that there are well over a million cameras (the total is hard to estimate because of the number of illegal installations).

However, surveillance here is very much tied into security. It´s not a ´security state´ – although it still retains reminders of its more authoritarian past – the concentration on security is largely private. Industry reports I have found, for example, this one from the Massachussets South America Office, indicate that the security industry is growing at rates of betwen 10 and 15% regardless of wider economic trends. Foreign companies are poised like vultures over the thousands of SME security companies that make up the huge private security sector, and positively salivate over the high crime figures.

If one talks in abstracts and absolutes, investment in security at a national level seems to make a difference to these figures. The Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública (or Fórum Segurança, the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety), an independent network of local groups, experts and members of state and private secuirty organisations, has started to publish an annual report. The second report, available late last year, indicates a strong correlation between increased spending ($35 Billion US in 2007) and the decline in homicides. For example, in Rio there was an increase in spending of 4.4% and a decline in homicides of 4.7%. A summary in English is available here.

The big thing is not so much public space surveillance (although the industry report mentioned above estimates a $1Bn US market for electronic surveillance technology mainly for the private sector), but both fortification (especially the upsurge in the building of secure condominiums) and the increasing numbers of human security operatives. These may be private security, the new Municipal Guards – basically private security now employed by more than 750 local mayors – or even more worryingly, the urban militias, particularly in Rio. Despite the massive investment in public safety highlighted by Fórum Segurança, official police and other state agents of security and safety are still poorly paid, demotivated and not trusted. To remedy their perceived weakness, in particular in dealing with drug trafficking gangs, so-called Autodefesas Comunitárias (ADC, or Community Self-Defence) groups have emerged. These are paramilitaries made up of current and former police, soldiers, firemen and private security, who basically invade favelas to drive out traffickers in the name of safety, but which soon come to dominate the area and create a new kind of violent order. Now a report by the Parliamentary Hearing Commission into the Militias of Rio de Janeiro, has named names (including several local representatives), and various measures are promised.

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