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Why Brazil's Violence Keeps Getting Worse

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Brazil has a new homicide count for 2016, and it's the highest in the country's recorded history. Researchers there tracked why this well-studied problem continues to get worse. Catherine Osborn has the story.

CATHERINE OSBORN, BYLINE: Brazil had over 61,000 intentional homicides last year according to the nonprofit Brazilian Forum of Public Security. The country has been in economic crisis, but political scientist Roberta Astolfi who was part of this research team, says that doesn't fully explain the problem.

ROBERTA ASTOLFI: It's a matter of political will, also.

OSBORN: She says, in recent years, programs in several Brazilian states successfully reduced homicides. They worked closely with young men, encouraging them to stay in school and helping them find jobs after serving jail time. But Brazil's federal government cut key logistical support for those programs.

ASTOLFI: We were getting somewhere in controlling violence, and it was kind of abandoned.

OSBORN: Her group's research found homicides rose countrywide, their highest in Brazil's poor northeast and, in particular, killings after robberies and killings of police and by police are up. Astolfi points out Brazil has pockets of violence that makes some neighborhoods feel at peace and others at war.

SABRINA MARTINA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: That's how 19-year-old filmmaker Sabrina Martina describes her neighborhood, Rio's poor outskirt, or favela, of Complexo do Alemao, there have been over 200 days of shootouts there this year.

MARTINA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: Martina says she can't predict if it will be safe for her to come home on a given night. Only four years ago, local newspapers were calling her neighborhood a new tourist destination because of a special community policing program there. Now police have abandoned those tactics for military-style raids. Brazil's federal government says homicide reduction is a main priority of a national security plan it launched in January. Federal officials have not commented on these new violence totals.

MARTINA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: Martina says she doesn't trust politicians to resolve this on their own so she's joined a group of young people from favelas across the city building a campaign for police and drug policy reform. They launched a video in August...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: ...Calling for solutions crafted by people in areas worst affected by violence. Astolfi, the researcher, says she only predicts a change if mass public opinion says this level of violence is unacceptable. The way things are going, she says, 2017's numbers are on track to be worse. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Osborn in Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.