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International Youth Day: Brazil's shocking violent death rate

12 August 2013 | By Mara Luz

This United Nations’ International Youth Day we look at the extraordinarily high rate of violent death among young people in Brazil.

The 350,000 young pilgrims who poured into Rio de Janeiro for the Global Youth Gathering last month, along with the first Latin American Pope, brought a carnival atmosphere to the city.

But a new study shows that the picture is not such a happy one for Brazil’s 50 million young people.

The research, published by the government institute IPEA, shows that between 1996 and 2010, 1.9 million 15 to 29-year-olds were murdered, killed themselves or died in accidents.

Sao Paulo slums
Sao Paulo slums: Sao Paulo is considered one of the 'safest' areas for young men in Brazil, but their life expectancy has still dropped by nearly 10 months.

Youth and guns

Among young men, lethal violence is so common that their life expectancy at birth has fallen by two years and seven months in the worst affected state (Alagoas) – and by nearly 10 months in the ‘safest’ (Sao Paulo). Across almost all the states, furthermore, murder is the most common cause of violent death among young men.

Guns are another major part of the picture. Murders were far more likely to be committed with guns in 2010 than in 1980, according to the IPEA research, which shows that as many as eight in 10 killings involve guns.

  • Lethal violence involving youth and diffusion of firearms are two themes that go side by side in Brazil.'


Most murder victims are poor Afro-Brazilians who live on the outskirts of the cities. This is evident from the 2013 Map of the Violence: Homicide and Youth in Brazil published by the General Secretary of Brazil’s Presidency.

It shows that 76.9% of all 14 to 25-year-olds murdered in in 2011 were black, up from 63% in 2002. Both figures are disproportionately high, given that only around half of all Brazilians identify themselves as non-white.

Global statistics

Brazil also fares badly when compared with most other countries. It has the 27th highest murder rate in the world, according to statistics collected by the United Nations on 207 countries, with 22.7 murders per 100,000 people (the US rate is 5 and the UK rate 1.2).

According to the National Council of Justice, the police had almost 150,000 general murder enquiries open before 2007 but a year later, only 6.1% of them had been solved. 

Violence and impunity

So what is going on? Behind these grim statistics is the influence of Brazil’s history of slavery and our relatively recent military dictatorship.

This heritage fuels prejudice against people who are black, which in turn reinforces their poverty. It also helps perpetuate extreme violence andimpunity. Some police departments are still known as military police.

Daniel Souza, coordinator of the Ecumenical Youth Network (REJU), says: 'This reality is part of structural racism and the criminalisation of poverty. It is essential to implement policies which bring a broad spectrum of social measures to all young people.'

Christian Aid partner Koinonia

Rafael Soares of Koinonia, a Christian Aid partner organisation in Rio, says: 'Inequality has left some young people very vulnerable. In addition, there are around 15 million weapons in circulation in Brazil, due to organised crime and harsh public policies.

'These include the "pacifist police units" which deal with the violence in the favelas of Rio but at the cost of increasing violence against poor communities.'

'We need a much wider, louder public debate about the need for general disarmament of the population. In addition, police officers should be trained to ensure that when they occupy poor areas, they include young people and do not act on the basis of racial prejudice.'

Crimes committed by police

Débora Maria, of the Mothers of May, a campaign created after a massacre perpetrated by the military police in São Paulo in 2006, argues that the all crimes committed by the police at state level must be investigated at Federal level, to reduce the risk of corruption and conflicts of interest.

In addition, she is calling for creation of National Commission of Truth and Justice, to examine all crimes against the poor and black youth since the Dictatorship ended in 1988.

The youth in Brazil wants to live

During July’s Global Youth Gathering, the Ecumenical Youth Network organised activities under the slogan 'The youth in Brazil wants to live'. It’s shocking that death looms so large for our young people.

There is no one simple solution – but there are obvious reforms which Brazil could and should make, so all our young people can look forward to long lives ahead of them.

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Find out more

Read more about Christian Aid's work in Brazil.

Find out about Christian Aid Collective, a collective of young people from across the UK who want to act against poverty and injustice.

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About the author

Mara Luz is Christian Aid's country manager in Brazil.

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