Hostname: page-component-77c89778f8-swr86 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-19T14:49:59.111Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Before the Body Count: Homicide Statistics and Everyday Security in Latin America

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 June 2016


Homicide statistics are a widely accepted metric of security and democracy. This article argues for a focus on how bodies come or do not come to be counted – of what happens before states enumerate. The experience of São Paulo relates that how many people die and how many do not is connected to the governance of an organised crime group known as the PCC. The punishment practices of the PCC and groups like it throughout Latin America reshape the lived paradigm of governance over life and death, albeit in concealed ways. Statistics are produced by and are productive of a de jure state, different from the state de facto. The acceptance of state-made homicide figures, whether for analysis, visualisation or political claims, is consequential for the future of lived security and social science knowledge production.

Spanish abstract

Las estadísticas de homicidios son ampliamente aceptadas como medidas de seguridad y democracia. Este artículo busca un enfoque sobre cómo los cuerpos pueden ser o no ser contados – o qué pasa antes de que el Estado cuente los cuerpos. La experiencia de São Paulo demuestra que cuánta gente muere y cuánta no se conecta con el mandato de un grupo del crimen organizado conocido como el PCC. Las prácticas punitivas del PCC y de otros grupos similares a lo largo de Latinoamérica reconfiguran el paradigma de gobernabilidad sobre la vida y la muerte, aunque de forma velada. Las estadísticas son producidas por y producen un Estado de jure, diferente del Estado de facto. La aceptación de cifras de homicidio hechas por el Estado, ya sea para análisis, visualización o reclamos políticos tiene consecuencias para la seguridad y la producción de conocimiento desde las ciencias sociales.

Portuguese abstract

Taxas de homicídio são aceitas como índices medidores de segurança e democracia. Este artigo propõe o enfoque na maneira pela qual corpos são ou não contabilizados; no que acontece antes que o Estado quantifique estes corpos. A experiência de São Paulo demonstra que a quantidade de pessoas que morrem ou deixam de morrer está ligada ao comando de um grupo organizado conhecido como PCC. As práticas de punição do PCC e de outros grupos similares na América Latina reconfiguram o paradigma real de governança sobre a vida e a morte, ainda que de maneira velada. As estatísticas são produzidas e oriundas de um Estado de jure, ao invés de um Estado de facto. A aceitação das estatísticas produzidas pelo Estado com relação ao número de homicídios, seja para fins de análise, observação ou questões políticas, tem consequências para o futuro da segurança concreta dos cidadãos e para a produção de conhecimento nas ciências sociais.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 ‘Red telephone number’ is a reference to the Cold War direct line between the White House and the Kremlin, and is an emergency number to someone with records and knowledge of the individual in question.

2 All names, places and other identifying details have been changed. The names of categories are my closest translation.

3 Griffiths, Elizabeth and Chávez, Jorge, ‘Communities, Street Guns and Homicide Trajectories in Chicago, 1980–1995: Merging Methods for Examining Homicide Trends Across Space and Time’, Criminology, 42 (2004), pp. 941–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Klein, Malcolm, Maxson, Cheryl and Cunningham, Lea, ‘Crack, Street Gangs, and Violence’, Criminology, 29 (1991), pp. 623–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Land, Kenneth, McCall, Patricia and Cohen, Lawrence, ‘Structural Covariates of Homicide Rates: Are There Any Invariances Across Time and Social Space?’, American Journal of Sociology, 95 (1990), pp. 922–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mears, Daniel and Bhati, Avinash, ‘No Community is an Island: The Effects of Resource Deprivation on Urban Violence in Spatially and Socially Proximate Communities’, Criminology, 44 (2006), pp. 509–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Messner, Steven, ‘Poverty, Inequality, and the Urban Homicide Rate’, Criminology, 20 (1982), pp. 103–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Parker, Robert and Smith, Dwayne, ‘Deterrence, Poverty, and Type of Homicide’, American Journal of Sociology, 85 (1979), pp. 614624 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Pridemore, William, ‘A Methodological Addition to the Cross-National Empirical Literature on Social Structure and Homicide: A First Test of the Poverty-Homicide Thesis’, Criminology, 46 (2008), pp. 133–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Rosenfeld, Richard, Fornango, Robert and Rengifo, Andrés, ‘The Impact of Order-Maintenance Policing on New York City Homicide and Robbery Rates: 1988–2001’, Criminology, 45 (2007), pp. 355–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 LaFree, Gary and Drass, Kriss, ‘Counting Crime Booms Among Nations: Evidence for Homicide Victimization Rates, 1956–1998’, Criminology, 40 (2002), pp. 769800 Google Scholar.

6 Kubrin, Charis and Weitzer, Ronald, ‘Retaliatory Homicide: Concentrated Disadvantage and Neighborhood Culture’, Social Problems, 50 (2003), pp. 157–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Morenoff, Jeffrey, Sampson, Robert and Raudenbush, Stephen, ‘Neighborhood Inequality, Collective Efficacy, and the Spatial Dynamics of Urban Violence’, Criminology, 39 (2001), pp. 517–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Martínez, Ramiro, Rosenfeld, Richard and Mares, Dennis, ‘Social Disorganization, Drug Market Activity, and Neighborhood Violent Crime’, Urban Affairs Review, 43 (2008), pp. 846–74Google Scholar.

7 John Bailey and Lucía Dammert, Public Security and Police Reform in the Americas (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006); David Bayley, Democratizing the Police Abroad: What to Do and How to Do It (Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, 2001); Hugo Frühling, Joseph Tulchin and Heather Golding, Crime and Violence in Latin America: Citizen Security, Democracy, and the State (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2003); Mark Ungar, Elusive Reform: Democracy and the Rule of Law in Latin America (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002).

8 Papachristos, Andrew, ‘Murder by Structure: Dominance Relations and the Social Structure of Gang Homicide’, American Journal of Sociology, 115 (2009), pp. 74128 CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

9 Nielsen, Amie, Lee, Matthew and Martínez, Ramiro, ‘Intergrating Race, Place and Motive in Social Disorganization Theory: Lessons from a Comparison of Black and Latino Homicide Types in Two Immigrant Destination Cities’, Criminology, 43 (2005), pp. 837–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Papachristos, Andrew and Wildeman, Christopher, ‘Network Exposure and Homicide Victimization in an African American Community’, American Journal of Public Health, 104 (2014), pp. 143–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 I count established democracies where citizens benefit from a more or less equitable balance of rights and obligations as being countries of the Western World. Not coincidentally, it is these countries that form the critical mass of criminological study and knowledge.

12 Elijah Anderson, Code of the Streets (New York: Norton, 1999).

13 Enrique Arias, Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, and Public Security: Trafficking, Social Networks, and Public Security (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Bertrand, Romain, ‘“Behave Like Enraged Lions”: Civil Militias, the Army and the Criminalization of Politics in Indonesia’, Global Crime, 6 (2004): pp. 325–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Blake, Damion. ‘Shadowing the State: Violent Control and the Social Power of Jamaican Garrison Dons’, Journal of Ethnographic and Qualitative Research, 8 (2013), pp. 5675 Google Scholar; Civico, Aldo, ‘We are Illegal, but not Illegitimate: Modes of Policing in Medellín, Colombia’, PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 35 (2012), pp. 7793 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Davis, Diane, ‘Non-State Armed Actors, New Imagined Communities and Shifting Patterns of Sovereignty and Insecurity in the Modern World’, Contemporary Security Policy, 30 (2009), pp. 221–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff (eds.), Law and Disorder in the Post-Colony (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

14 Goertzel, Ted and Kahn, Tulio, ‘The Great São Paulo Homicide Drop’, Homicide Studies, 13 (2009), pp. 398410 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 SEADE – Fundação Sistema Estadual de Análise de Dados. 2012. Informações dos distritos da capital.

16 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Global Study on Homicide: Trends, Contexts, Data. UNODC (Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2011), available at

17 Graham Denyer Willis, ‘The Gun Library’, Boston Review, available atão-paulo-prisons-crime; Antagonistic Authorities and the Civil Police in São Paulo, Brazil’, Latin American Research Review, 49: 1 (2014), pp. 322 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; in Ben Bradford, Beatrice Jauregui, Ian Loader and Johnny Steinberg (eds.), ‘Police, “Police” and the Urban’, Handbook on Global Policing (London: Sage, forthcoming).

18 Graham Denyer Willis, The Killing Consensus: Police, Organized Crime and the Regulation of Life and Death in Urban Brazil (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2015).

19 Mbembe, Achille, ‘Necropolitics’, Public Culture, 15 (2003), pp. 1140 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Carl Schmitt, Political Theology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985); Max Weber, Basic Concepts in Sociology (New York: Philosophical Library, 1962).

20 Austin Sarat and Jennifer L. Culbert (eds.), States of Violence: War, Capital Punishment, and Letting Die (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

21 João Biehl, Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013); Loïc Wacquant, Urban Outcasts (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2008).

22 Papachristos, Andrew V., ‘Murder by Structure: Dominance Relations and the Social Structure of Gang Homicide’, American Journal of Sociology, 115 (2009), pp. 74128 CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Mares, Dennis, ‘Social Disorganization and Gang Homicides in Chicago: A Neighborhood Level Comparison of Disaggregated Homicides’, Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 8 (2010), pp. 3857 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Robert Jackall, Street Stories: The World of Police Detectives (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); Richard Ericson, Reproducing Order: A Study of Police Patrol Work (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990); Diane Davis, ‘Urban Violence, Quality of Life, and the Future of Latin American Cities: The Dismal Record So Far and the Search for New Analytical Frameworks to Sustain the Bias towards Hope’, in Alison M. Garland, Mejgan Massoumi and Blair A. Ruble (eds.), Global Urban Poverty: Setting the Agenda (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2007), pp. 50–89.

24 Kees Koonings and Dirk Kruijt (eds.), Fractured Cities: Social Exclusion, Urban Violence, and Contested Spaces in Latin America (London: Zed Books, 2007).

25 Martha Huggins, Political Policing: The United States and Latin America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).

26 Thomas Holloway, Policing Rio de Janeiro: Repression and Resistance in a 19th Century City (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993).

27 Kees Koonings and Dirk Kruijt (eds.), Armed Actors, Organized Violence and State Failure in Latin America (London: Zed Books, 2004); Susan Rotker and Katherine Goldman, Citizens of Fear: Urban Violence in Latin America (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002).

28 Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff (eds.), Law and Disorder in the Postcolony (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); Angelina. S. Godoy, Popular Injustice: Violence, Community, and Law in Latin America (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006); Goldstein, Daniel, ‘Flexible Justice: Neo-liberal Violence and “Self-Help” Security in Bolivia’, Critical Anthropology, 25 (2005), pp. 389411 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kevin. L. O'Neill and Kendron Thomas (eds.), Securing the City: Neoliberalism, Space, and Insecurity in Postwar Guatemala (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Michael Taussig, Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia (New York: The New Press, 2003).

29 Nader, Laura and Metzger, Duane, ‘Conflict Resolution in Two Mexican Communities’, American Anthropologist, 65 (1963), pp. 584–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Merry, Sally Engel, ‘Legal Pluralism’, Law and Society Review, 22 (1988), pp. 869–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 de Sousa Santos, Boaventura, ‘The Law of the Oppressed: The Construction and Reproduction of Legality in Pasargada’, Law and Society Review, 12 (1977), pp. 5126 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Sandra Brunnegger and Karen Ann Faulk (eds.), A Sense of Justice: Legal Knowledge and Lived Experience in Latin America (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016).

32 Janice Perlman, The Myth of Marginality (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976); Robert Gay, Popular Organization and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: A Tale of Two Favelas (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1994); Leeds, Elizabeth, ‘Cocaine and Parallel Polities in the Brazilian Urban Periphery: Constraints on Local-Level Democratization’, Latin American Research Review, 31 (1996), pp. 4783 Google Scholar; Arias, Enrique Desmond, ‘The Dynamics of Criminal Governance: Networks and Social Order in Rio de Janeiro’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 38 (2006), pp. 293325 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Carlos Amorim, Comando vermelho: a história secreta do crime organizado (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 1993); Robert Gay, Lucia: Testimonies of a Brazilian Drug Dealer's Woman (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2005); Ben Penglase, Living with Insecurity: Urban Violence and Daily Life (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014).

34 Robert Gay, Bruno: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Dealer (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).

35 Erika Robb Larkins, The Spectacular Favela: Violence in Modern Brazil (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2015).

36 Enrique Desmond Arias, Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks and Public Security (Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press 2006).

37 Drauzio Varella, Estação Carandiru (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1999).

38 Camila Dias, PCCHegemonia nas prisões e monopólio da violência (São Paulo: Saraiva, 2013).

39 Feltran, Gabriel, ‘Crime e castigo na cidade: os repertórios da justiça e a questão do homicídio nas periferias de São Paulo’, Caderno CRH 23 (2010): pp. 5973 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 INFOPEN. 2012. Infopen – Estatística, Ministério da Justiça.

41 SEADE – Fundação Sistema Estadual de Análise de Dados (2012), Informações dos distritos da capital.

42 Gabriel Feltran, Fronteiras de tensão: política e violência nas periferias de São Paulo (São Paulo: UNESP, 2011).

43 Caldeira, Teresa, ‘Electoral Struggles in a Neighborhood on the Periphery of São Paulo’, Politics & Society, 15 (1986): pp. 4366 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 Guarulhosweb, PM aprende suspeitos de realizer ‘tribunal de crime’, 9 Sept. 2013, available at

45 Feltran, Fronteiras de tensão; ‘Crime e castigo na cidade’, pp. 59–73.

46 Unlike in many other contexts, these post mortem examinations are not mandatory. They are ordered at the discretion of the detective in charge of a case in question.

47 Alfonso Benites and Josmar Jozino, ‘Facção é suspeita de mandar matar assassinos de menino boliviano’, Folha de São Paulo, 13 Sept. 2013, available at

48 Estado de São Paulo. A ‘justiça’ do PCC. 2013, n.d., available at,a-justica-do-pcc-imp-,1074564.

49 Lumi Zúnica, ‘Facção teria ordenado morte dos suspeitos de matar menino boliviano’, R7, 10 Oct. 2013, available atão-paulo/faccao-teria-ordenado-morte-dos-suspeitos-de-matar-menino-boliviano-10102013.

50 Peter Andreas and Kelly Greenhill, Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010).

51 Francis Fukuyama and Seth Colby, ‘Half a Miracle’, Foreign Policy, 25 April 2011, available at

52 Civico, ‘We are Illegal, but not Illegitimate’, pp. 77–93.

53 Steven Dudley, The El Salvador Gang Truce and the Church: What Was the Role of the Catholic Church? CLALS WHITE PAPER No. 1 (Washington, DC: American University, 2013), available at