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Crime Supplants Economy as Brazilians’ Top Worry, Rattling Lula

(Bloomberg) -- Crime has surged to the forefront of Brazilians’ minds in recent months, supplanting economic issues as their top concern and sparking consternation inside President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s administration over how to respond.

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Roughly 60% of Brazilians now rank crime as the biggest issue facing the country, according to a March survey released by AtlasIntel, four times the share that said it was the economy. The worries have helped drive overall approval of the leftist Lula — whose winning 2022 campaign focused largely on rebuilding the economy and combating poverty in the wake of the pandemic — to the lowest levels of his term.

Brazil has long suffered from alarmingly high rates of violence, and rising concerns about security are hardly unique in Latin America. Crime has come to dominate the region’s politics, driving many leaders to begin mimicking the hard-line approach of El Salvadorian President Nayib Bukele.

What separates Brazil from many of its neighbors is that its overall number of homicides has been falling: The country experienced 47,398 murders in 2022, about 10,000 fewer than it had just four years prior, according to the most recent data available the Brazilian Forum of Public Security, a research organization.

Read More: Bukele’s Brutal Crime Crackdown Gets Mimicked in Latin America

Other forms of crime, however, have become more common, experts say, while the end of the pandemic and the Brazilian economy’s better-than-expected performance last year have caused the public to return their focus to other hot-button issues.

“The irony right now is that Brazil is actually doing better than it has in years on economic grounds and in terms of political stability,” said Robert Muggah, co-founder of the Igarape Institute, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro. “Yet, that gives space for people to be preoccupied with other issues, including public security.”

While Brazil has avoided the sort of homicide explosion that Ecuador has seen, it has not solved lingering issues that helped Lula’s right-wing predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, win the 2018 election on the back of campaign promises to take an iron-fisted approach to public security.

Organized criminal groups still exert control over swaths of major cities like Rio de Janeiro, and battle for control of drug and smuggling routes from jungle borders to urban ports.

“The pandemic hit and we stopped talking about it,” said Joana Monteiro, a professor of public policy at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro.

Headline-grabbing incidents related to those problems have helped return the focus to crime, including the torching of public buses by organized criminal groups in Rio last year and the escape of two inmates from a maximum security prison in northern Brazil in February. The fugitives, who took part in the country’s first prison-break of its kind, remain at large.

Read More: Rio Ratchets Up Crime Surveillance to Keep Streets Safe for G-20

Available data also suggests that criminals’ tactics are shifting. While Brazil saw a big reduction in robberies since the pandemic, embezzlement and phishing scams — known locally as “golpes” — have exploded.

Many of the crimes that most affect Brazilians’ perceptions of public security, meanwhile, are likely under-reported. A recent survey showed that nearly one of every three residents in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and business capital, have had their cell phone stolen — occurrences so common that many victims never report them to police.

Lula Concerned

In a nation as divided as Brazil, political leanings also have large effects on how citizens perceive the security situation, experts say. Leftist leaders who typically focus their messages on root causes like inequality — or avoid the subject altogether — often face backlash on public security, and polls show that Brazilians routinely rank Lula’s government as weak on crime.

Bolsonaro and his allies in congress and key governorships have seized on the issue, continuing to advocate for more lethal responses to criminals, including by doing more to empower the police.

Privately, Lula has complained to cabinet members that his government is losing the narrative on public security to critics, according to a people familiar with the conversations who requested anonymity to discuss the matter.

“Right or wrong, these messages resonate, especially to far-right supporters who are paranoid that the situation is deteriorating,” said Muggah.

That is the case even in Latin American countries with far lower rates of insecurity. In Chile, the perception that President Gabriel Boric is weak on crime is one of the factors that have pushed his popularity below 30%, while Argentina’s Javier Milei won a hard-fought election last year thanks in part to his law-and-order platform.

With municipal elections just months away and no major policy changes planned, Monteiro said the debate over crime in Brazil is only bound to get louder before the next presidential race in two years.

“It’s going to be a key topic not only this year but in 2026,” she said.

--With assistance from Simone Iglesias, Beatriz Amat and Robert Jameson.

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