Brazil does not know the cause of 17,000 of its violent deaths in 2019. They may have been caused by assaults, murders, accidents or suicides, but they enter statistics as undefined and likely drag the country’s homicide records down.
The conclusion is the Atlas of Violence 2021, which was released this Tuesday (31). The study calculated that deaths classified as “violent death from undetermined causes” (MVCI) jumped from 12,310 to 16,648 between the years 2018 and 2019, an increase of 35%.
The growth goes against the homicides, which fell 21% in the same period, from 57,956 to 45,503 — this is the lowest number of murders in Brazil since 1995, the beginning of the historical series, but the problem in the notifications indicates that it is underestimated.
The annual survey gathers data from the Ministry of Health, mainly from the Mortality Information System (SIM). It was carried out by the Brazilian Public Security Forum (FBSP), the Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea) and the Jones dos Santos Neves Institute (IJSN), linked to the government of Espírito Santo.
According to the survey, the quality of this information had been improving for more than 15 years, but it suffered a significant deterioration in 2018 and 2019. As a result, the share of undefined deaths in total deaths from external causes doubled from 6% to 12% in two years, the worst level since 1979.
“In developed countries, this is done very carefully and the percentage is less than 1%. Firstly out of respect for the families, who have the right to know how the person died, and secondly because it is essential to make a diagnosis and prevent further deaths. Our thermometer is broken”, says Daniel Cerqueira, director of the IJSN and one of the study coordinators.
The worsening happened, he says, due to the lack of adequate review by the states and, mainly, by the federal government. Every year, intense work is done with the units of the federation to qualify the data, trying to find out from the police and families what the circumstances of the deaths were.
“The 2019 numbers would generally be released in May 2021, but they were released in January, with much anticipation and without the due criteria. Even more so in a year of pandemic, in which the health system was totally focused on Covid, one would expect a delay,” says Cerqueira. Questioned, the Ministry of Health did not respond.
Six states have shown more glaring failures: São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro (in both, the rates of undefined deaths surpass those of homicides), Ceará, Bahia, Minas Gerais and Pernambuco. Without the action of the ministry, they “feel more comfortable” not to check the data and end up benefiting from fewer murders counted, according to the researcher.
In another study, he estimated that approximately 74% of deaths from undetermined causes recorded in Brazil between 1996 and 2010 were actually hidden homicides. Of the nearly 17,000 notified in 2019, for example, 1,991 were caused by firearms.
Despite the problem with the numbers, the downward trend in murders that year was confirmed by other surveys, such as the Brazilian Yearbook of Public Security, which gathers police incidents. The last Yearbook, however, already pointed to an increase in 2020, even during the pandemic.
The decrease in violent deaths in Brazil over the long term is credited by researchers to population aging (since most victims are young), to a series of public security policies in some states and to the Disarmament Statute, from 2003 .
In the short term, it also involves a kind of armistice between criminal factions that waged a war over international drug trafficking in 2016 and 2017, causing an explosion of homicides in the North and Northeast at the time, followed by a sharp drop.
Now the Atlas warns of the recent high in deaths. Among the causes, he cites the resurgence of violence in the countryside, the increase in deaths by police officers without effective control mechanisms and the expansion of access to firearms by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro (no party).
“In security, there is a clash similar to that of a pandemic, between denialism and science. In the international and national academy there is a consensus: more weapons, more crimes. But this has been neglected by an irresponsible policy that will bring more tragedies for decades, because these new weapons will last 20, 30 years,” says Cerqueira.
Research shows that the reduction in lethal violence in the last decade has been more concentrated among the non-black population than among the black population. In the first group, the rate per 100,000 inhabitants dropped 30% between 2009 and 2019, while in the second the decrease was only 15%. As a result, blacks are 76% of the victims and are 2.6 more likely to be killed.
Another fact that indicates that racial inequality has increased is that, in 2009, the mortality rate of black or brown women was 49% higher than that of white, indigenous or yellow women. Eleven years later, it was 66% higher.
The profile of victims remains young, although this percentage is falling year by year. Of the more than 600 thousand homicides accumulated from 2009 to 2019, 53% of victims were between 15 and 29 years old.
The Atlas also brings data on violence against the LGBTQIA+ population, once again drawing attention to the lack of information on this front. Denouncements to Disque 100, a federal government service, suffered a sharp reduction in the last year of the analysis.
Since 2015, the number of calls remained between 1,600 and 2,000 per year. In 2019, it fell by half, to 833. On the other hand, the numbers of Sinan (Information System for Notifiable Diseases) did not indicate a drop in this type of notification in practice, in the health system.
“The reasons why people do not use the service to file complaints can be numerous, from the lack of confidence in the equipment managed by the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, to the lack of political and financial priority given to the issue by the agency, or the eventual reduction of the channel’s disclosure”, speculates the report.
It was the first time that the study analyzed violence against two other minority groups. It pointed to an increase in the murders of indigenous people in a decade, from 112 to 186, and recorded an average of at least one aggression against the population with disabilities per hour in the country.
Data, however, always comes with a caveat as to its quality. “Our objective is to strain the authorities so that they produce information. We are still experiencing a statistical blackout. It is necessary to watch over this national heritage that we have, which is YES [Sistema de Informações sobre Mortalidade]”, emphasizes Daniel Cerqueira.