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English Report

During eight months of research, 123 murders were committed in the state of Maranhão, the greatest number occurring in the month of May and the lowest incidence in August, with an average of 15.37 homicides per month.  Most victims were males (88.94%) between 20 and 30 years of age (46.9%).

A New Maranhão, Without Violence, Is Possible

* Josiane Gamba

 Saturday, Sunday, the weekend.  In other words, sun, sand, song, and cold beer on the “Island of Love.”[1]  The Island of Love?  Not exactly.  Peace and tranquility are no longer part of the social life of people in Maranhão the way they were in earlier times when it was possible to safely come and go from parties and playing music into the early morning. 

 According to an inquiry conducted by the Sociedade Maranhense de Direitos Humanos (the Maranhão Society for Human Rights),[2] 76.9% of the murders in Maranhão reported in the press occur in the coastal capital city of São Luís, on the weekends (53.62%), with 37.08% occurring during the early morning hours and 30.37% at night.  The most frequent location for homicides is on public streets (50.33%), followed by the victim’s residence (14.26%).  Knives and switchblades are the most common murder weapons (48.41%), while another 42.02% of murders are committed with guns.

 During eight months of research, a total of 123 murders were committed, the greatest number occurring in the month of May and the lowest incidence in August, with an average of 15.37 homicides per month.  Most victims were males (88.94%) between 20 and 30 years of age (46.96%).  In the month of February there was a greater incidence of children below 10 years of age among the victims (16.67%), while the number of victims over 50 years of age reached 4.46%.  Another notable fact regarding the profile of murder victims in Maranhão is related to illicit acts – 14% of the victims had been involved in previous illicit acts.  Also among the victims were those who were unemployed, merchants, students, and police officers.

 With regard to the perpetrators, all of the homicides reported in the two newspapers over the course of eight months were committed by males.  In half of the cases, the newspapers did not provide the age of the perpetrator, while in the cases in which they were identified a significant proportion were between the ages of 20 and 30 (28.46%).  29% of the perpetrators were involved in illicit acts, 9.23% were partners or ex-partners of the victims, 8.57% were relatives or people who were close to the victim (colleagues), and 4.16% were police officers.  Additionally, 6.99% of the perpetrators were involved with gangs.

 Most of the homicides were attributed to the settling of scores (27.38%), including retaliatory resolution of conflicts, but excluding murders to settle scores between gangs, which accounted for 9.70%.  The second most common motive involved criminal activities, especially hold-ups or robberies (16.42%).  Victims defending themselves against criminal acts accounted for 6.01% of murders, and jealousy accounted for 4.32%.

 Analysis of the data reveals how vulnerable the population is at night and during the early morning hours, times when most of the city’s cultural and entertainment activities take place.  There is also a marked attempt on the part of the population to resolve crimes themselves, including settling scores.  This may be related to a lack of access to justice and a lack of trust in the police and the efficiency of institutions to solve and punish conflicts, which feed a culture of violence and the devaluation of life.

 Both the victims and the killers are mostly young men who are poor and involved in criminality.  They tend to be active in gangs, groups of poor youths from the socially excluded neighborhoods of greater São Luís who are denied human rights and citizenship, and for whom liberty, equality, and justice are meaningless words.  This research has shown that the world of crime and gang activity has set a fast pace of self-destruction creating a continual cycle of violence that cuts lives short.  To overcome this destructive cycle, this hard reality must be faced; state institutions must be restructured to completely invert the current priorities by making human dignity, quality of life, and institutional integrity the central organizing principles.

 This is the challenge.  It is necessary to implement public policies that promote, protect, and reinstate the human rights that have been violated, that make it possible for the poor populations from both the rural areas and the cities to have homes, clean water, sewage treatment, garbage collection, as well as adequate income and education and a healthy environment, and that invert the relationship of land ownership and income distribution.  It is only by changing the dramatic economic and social inequalities that the indices of violence and criminality will also be reversed.

 A new Maranhão is possible through the creation of a new standard of conduct, one in which relations are founded on the principles of solidarity and citizenship, breaking the cycle of fear, impunity, and retributive conflict resolution, thereby reestablishing trust in institutions and opening up opportunities.  Such a transformation is possible because criminality is a social phenomenon caused by social exclusion, discrimination, corruption, and impunity.  Therefore, the situation can be overcome, and this recuperation will be a victory for those who strive for human rights and citizenship. 

* Josiane Gamba is a lawyer for the Sociedade Maranhense de Direitos Humanos (Maranhão Society for Human Rights) and the Organization and Projects Coordinator for the Movimento Nacional de Direitos Humanos (MNDH, the National Movement for Human Rights).

[1] The city of São Luís is located on an island, and is promoted as “the Island of Love.” – Transl.

[2] The data presented here are drawn from news reports published between January and August of 2004 in two large newspapers in the state, O Imparcial and the Jornal Pequeno.  The Sociedade Maranhense de Direitos Humanos is part of the Banco de Dados sobre Violência Criminalizada (Databank on Criminal Violence) developed by the Movimento Nacional de Direitos Humanos (MNDH, the National Movement for Human Rights) and organized at the state level by agencies affiliated with the MNDH network.