November 15, 2005 4:14 pm

Crime without punishment poses questions for Brazil

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The sight of Paulo Maluf, a former mayor of São Paulo, and his son Flávio, bleary-eyed in the back of a police car on their way to jail in the middle of the night, was one many Brazilians thought they would never see.

Mr Maluf is accused of spiriting overseas more than $160m (€137m, £92m) from public works contracts. He and his son were arrested in September for allegedly conspiring to influence witnesses. Both deny any wrongdoing.

Less remarkable than the Malufs’ arrest was their release 40 days later on a writ of habeas corpus. Despite compelling evidence against them, it is unlikely they will return to custody. The almost endless possibilities for appeal should make sure of that.

It is not only high-profile crimes that easily escape punishment.

“Crime is part of human nature all over the world,” says Antonio Carlos Biscaia, a congressman from the Workers’ party of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “What makes it particularly serious in Brazil is impunity.”

In Mr Biscaia’s home state of Rio de Janeiro, for example, the detection rate for murder is about 5 per cent. This compares with about 92 per cent in the UK.

There has been some progress, however. The murder rate dipped last year after gun controls were introduced, and town councils have scored successes against violent crime with soft measures such as restricting bar opening hours.

Still, the structure of the security services is a block to fundamental change. Rivalries between civil and military police hinder investigations and prosecutions, and police in both forces are often corrupt and violent.

Mr Biscaia, a former public prosecutor, points to isolated advances such as the creation of a national crime database. But in general, he says, the situation is “lamentable”.

Most of the law and order bills now before Congress call for stiffer sentencing instead of tackling procedures to secure more convictions. And any attempt to change the present structure faces “an incredible lobby in Congress”, he says.

White-collar crime, too, is widely accepted as a fact of life. “There is no such thing as a public tender where the outcome isn’t settled in advance,” says the owner of a civil engineering company in São Paulo. “The only way to get paid is by paying 5 to 10 per cent in kickbacks.”

This subject has been much in the news over the past five months, as leaders of the Workers’ party have been accused of orchestrating a scheme of vote-buying and illegal campaign finance since congressional and presidential elections in 2002.

A dozen or so legislators are likely to be expelled from Congress as a result of the affair. That the use of illegal campaign finance is routine was made explicit recently by Mr Lula da Silva, when he told Workers’ party leaders that their acceptance of off-books contributions was not a crime but an “error”.

It is an attitude captured in the Portuguese phrase não pode mas pode – “You can’t but you can.”

Recently, however, this attitude has come under attack. As a result of growing co-operation between the police, public prosecutors and other investigators in the central bank and revenue service, many people who previously flaunted their impunity have been brought to justice.

“This is a medium- to long-term job,” says Antonio Fernando Souza, the attorney-general, of the growing co-operation between investigators. “It’s a question of policy. There is no formal structure. What there is is dialogue.”

But the lack of a formal structure makes progress difficult.

Paulo Lacerdo, head of the federal police, says public prosecutors are often “arrogant” towards the police and tend to work only on those cases that give greatest media exposure.

“I have no problems with the attorney-general’s office being in charge of investigations,” he says. “But not the way they want, not selectively.”

A case now before the Supreme Court will decide whether public prosecutors have the right to investigate at all. Mr Souza says restricting investigations to the police would be a bad move. “We need more openness and more co-ordination,” he says.

But prosecutors lack resources for Mr Lacerdo’s proposal of “all or nothing”.

While stumbling blocks are rife, improvement of Brazil’s security apparatus does not require any miracles. Promising policies have been developed at municipal, state and national levels.

When it comes to implementation, however, they have too often been abandoned. Too many people, at all levels, are happy to leave things as they are.

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