On 7 April, 23-year-old Wellington Menezes de Oliveira entered a school in Rio de Janeiro brandishing a gun. He killed 12 students and injured more than 20 others before shooting himself. Although Brazil has become increasingly associated with violence and gun crime in recent years, this was the first time in the country’s history that a school has been the target of a shooting, drawing comparisons with the 1999 Columbine massacre.
The attack on the Escola Municipal Tasso da Silveira school in the city’s western neighbourhood of Realengo has tempered the wave of excitement about Brazil’s economic and social achievements in recent years. Brazil is hotly tipped to become the world’s fifth-largest economy over the course of the next decade. The crowning moment came when the country was elected host for both the 2014 Fifa World Cup and the Olympic Games in 2016.
President Obama’s recent visit to Brazil further confirmed the country’s importance on the world stage and the attraction it holds for foreign investment. Yet in February, the Brazilian ministry of justice released a report revealing that the murder rate among youths had almost doubled between 1998 and 2008. Last month’s attack has stirred the politicians into action: today, the minister of justice José Eduardo Cardozo will launch a national disarmament campaign.
Alice Ribeiro, weapons control coordinator at the Instituto Sou da Paz, told O Globo newspaper that the country needs to stop the sale and circulation of weapons altogether: “If that guy hadn’t had a weapon in his hand, the tragedy would not have had the same scale,” she commented. “Any other instrument…would certainly not have been as lethal as a firearm…the more weapons that there are in circulation, the more deaths will happen,” she added.
Of course, other Latin American countries such as El Salvador, Colombia and Mexico have similar or worse track records for violence in recent years. In April, a 13-year-old female student in El Salvador was arrested at school for carrying two guns in her rucksack. The school, the Centro Escolar Dolores C. Retes in the eastern city of San Miguel, had come under close scrutiny just weeks before when one of the school’s teachers was arrested for shooting at police. The Salvadoran press recently reported that around 23 schools in the east of the country are under close surveillance for gang and gun-related activity.
The Rio shooting itself has raised further questions over Brazil’s suitability as a host for large-scale sporting events. But just as people were too quick to judge South Africa prior to the 2010 World Cup, it would be a shame to let this tragic event cloud our expectations of Brazil’s ability to host such events.
In general terms, homicide rates have dropped over the past decade. A 2003 law posed some restrictions on gun possession and offered civilians financial incentives to hand over guns. The disarmament campaign had an impressive impact with the homicide rate in São Paulo alone dropping by some 22 per cent little over a year later. The campaign launched today is expected to have an even greater effect across the entire country.
In spite of concerns over gun crime, Brazil has come on leaps and bounds in recent years in terms of security. Cidade de Deus, the favela (shanty town) made famous by the 2002 box office hit City of God, is one of over 20 favelas that have been part of a widespread security drive to rid the slums of heavily armed drug traffickers in the run-up to the Olympics. President Obama was even allowed to visit the town. Perhaps the world shouldn’t be so quick to judge Brazil and see the school shooting for what it is—a tragic anomaly that will hopefully never be repeated.