Published on Tuesday, July 3, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Rio Bulldozes 100,000 Guns in Brazil's Biggest Campaign Against Violent Crimes
by Jessica Galeria
Rio de Janeiro --
MILITARY helicopters buzzed noisily over the police-lined streets in Rio
de Janeiro last month as tens of thousands of onlookers jostled and craned for
a better view. The Brazilian army stood at attention as a bulldozer steamed
through a cheering crowd.
Crushed under the machine's immense weight were 100,000 guns confiscated by Rio police -- the largest arms stockpile ever destroyed anywhere in the world on a single day. The previous record number of guns had been 28,000 in South Africa.
The event, organized by the Rio de Janeiro state government and Viva Rio, a local disarmament group, had all the markings of the polished public-image campaign: politicians made speeches, the national anthem crackled, and after the guns were all run over, police handed out white roses.
For some, though, the polish was laid on a bit too thick. As a little girl solemnly set a single flower on the carpet of broken weapons, one American correspondent said loudly: "This whole thing is just a horse-and-pony show. A nice photo-op, but there's no story here."
Rio is a city whose international image has in recent years swung from a hot beach paradise to a hotbed of violent crime. City police are notoriously violent and inefficient, and studies show that reselling confiscated guns in illegal markets is a widespread practice.
Critics called the weapons "rusty old relics," that were only destroyed because they would have fetched little or no kickbacks -- even in the gun- infested shantytowns, or favelas.
True, some of the guns heaped onto the photogenic 4,304-square-foot pile were rusty and old. But if even one of those guns was destroyed instead of left inside someone's closet where it might be accidentally fired by a child, or used to irreversibly end a drunken argument, then the event was more than a publicity stunt.
Furthermore, an analysis by the Institute of Religious Studies, a think- tank in Rio, determined that nearly 600 of the destroyed weapons were machine guns, submachine guns and sawed-off shotguns. Also destroyed were grenade launchers, rocket launchers and bazookas. That's a far cry from rusty old relics -- by any standards.
The latest U.N. statistics show that firearms are involved in more than 80 percent of all homicides in Brazil, as well as the majority of its exceedingly high numbers of robbery and kidnapping.
Much of Brazil's notorious violence problem then is made possible by guns, exacerbated by easy access in thriving illegal markets. Destroying confiscated weapons is the one sure way to ensure that they cannot trickle back into the hands of criminals.
Critics most likely know nothing about the decades of bureaucratic disorganization that had to be undone to make the destruction event possible.
First, police had to modernize their records, listing each gun in a computer database. Then, legislation was changed to allow the destruction of confiscated arms after five years instead of 20, as originally demanded by the Justice Department.
This meant that no gun could have accumulated less than five years of wear and tear. And as the report noted, the use of larger and flashier weapons has been on the increase only in recent years, and "therefore constitute a large number of weapons still to be destroyed."
Perhaps the mere presence of government officials, widely mistrusted as corrupt and self-serving throughout Brazil, led to skepticism.
At the national level, legislation to permanently ban the sale of firearms to civilians has been stalled in congress for more than two years, rewritten so many times it retains little of its original stringency. In that time, more than 60,000 Brazilians have died as a result of firearm injuries, while a well- funded gun lobby continues to gain power.
But the Rio state government has, at least ostensibly, supported civil society disarmament efforts spearheaded by groups such as Viva Rio.
Rio Vice Gov. Benedita da Silva, one of the first black women in Brazil to hold such high office, even took part in the march.
"Combatting violence is one of the most urgent items on our agenda," she said, adding without a hint of irony that "we are not going to let this issue die."
Jessica Galeria is a Fulbright scholar studying gun violence in Brazil in collaboration with Viva Rio.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle