Magazine article New Internationalist

Present Arms! [Disarmament in Rio De Janeiro]

Magazine article New Internationalist

Present Arms! [Disarmament in Rio De Janeiro]

Article excerpt

WITH the colour of a carnival attraction, the destruction of the largest number of guns in a single day took place in Brazil on 24 June 2001. More than 100,000 rifles, pistols, revolvers and machine guns were laid out on metal plates stretching 100 metres down the pretty Parque do Flamengo, a square in the seaside city of Rio de Janeiro. Tens of thousands of spectators - some of them previous gun owners - waited behind barricades to watch an excavator drive up and down the plates, crushing the weapons beneath its metal tracks. It marked the first step towards the disarmament of the civilian population in Rio and, four years later, the whole of the country.

Separating a man from his gun is difficult in a Latin country like Brazil. It is even harder in- a city like Rio de Janeiro, where small arms have often been seen as the best protection against the violence and crime that plagues it. Guns are the number-one cause of death for men in Rio, and Brazil recorded the second highest rate of deaths by firearms in a 54-country survey conducted by UNESCO released this May.

Nevertheless, the State of Rio de Janeiro is in the middle of a government-sponsored buy-back campaign that has astonished officials with its success. When it began last July, authorities estimated that 80,000 arms would be handed in by December at a price of $20 to $100 each. Instead 250,000 weapons were collected by the end of 2004, prompting the Government to extend the amnesty by another six months. Now the tally is up to 330,000, with more guns being destroyed by the military every day. On 21 May this year, gun collection centres opened nationally. And a ban on Chilian sales of small arms will be decided by referendum later this year.

The campaign's principal engineer is Viva Rio, an NGO established in 1993. As a result of the group's lobbying, research and education programmes, the Government and public are realizing that a safer Rio is one with fewer guns, not more.

Brazil's arms dealers exposed

When Viva Rio analyzed military and police gun records stretching back to 1950, the results were surprising, even to the police. While assault rifles like the AK-47 were making the headlines, more than 80 per cent of guns seized by police were pistols and revolvers. Three quarters of the handguns had been locally manufactured - half of those by the country's largest gun-maker. The data ran counter to the popular belief- pushed strongly by the local arms industry - that the weapons most responsible for the violence in Rio were foreign-made, large-calibre rifles from the US, China, Russia and Israel. That line of argument meant that arms smuggled into the country could only be stopped by better state control of Brazil's borders.

Not surprisingly, Brazil's local arms industry has loudly opposed a ban on gun sales and is lobbying to delay the referendum until next year. There is also resistance from the rural upper class, particularly in the south, where large landowners have traditionally organized their own private security by distributing guns to farm workers.

But the greatest obstacle has been psychological. Many Cariocas (as the inhabitants of Rio are known) bought guris to protect their families from gang- and drugrelated warfare in the city's favelas. To counter this rationale Viva Rio argues for better police training, more communication with the community and fewer weapons in the favelas as the only way to guarantee the rights of individuals. While middle-class residents buy guns for protection, in the favelas they are carried as symbols of prestige. Rio's drug dealers display military-grade rifles like they do their money and women. …

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