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Shot Down: Lobby Kills Brazil Gun Ban

by Anton FoekSpecial to CorpWatch
October 25th, 2005

cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Every 15 minutes, someone in Brazil dies from a gunshot wound, according to the United Nations. Yet the world’s first ever referendum on banning civilian guns in this country failed to pass this past Sunday.

Instead the proposed ban went down to a resounding defeat with almost two thirds of the population voting no to the question: "Should the sale of all types of guns and ammunition be banned nationwide for everyone except the police and the military?"

Earlier this year, support for the ban had been running as high as 80 percent, but in recent weeks, the pro-gun lobby -- arms makers and various activist groups -- played on fears about the crime rate and the public swung dramatically against the proposal. The vote also represented the public’s lack of confidence in security forces -- mired in corruption and inefficiency -- to protect the populace. According to the BBC, middle class men were most likely to oppose the ban, while women and the poor favored it.

For the millions of Brazilians who voted to end gun sales, the defeat was a blow to extensive efforts to curb an epidemic of murder that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the past 20 years. Many see this violence as a hidden civil war fueled by a proliferation of small arms -- an estimated 17.5 million guns -- with about 90 percent in civilian hands and half of them illegal. More than 36,000 died last year alone, twice the toll in the early 1990s.

"It is not a coincidence that the victims of violence are the same victims as always in Brazil: the poor black and segregated. And mostly under the age of 25," says Luis Mir, a Sao Paulo emergency room surgeon and author of "Civil War- State and Trauma."

The battleground of this hidden war is the slums, or favelas, of the bigger Brazilian cities. "The favelas are concentration camps," says Mir. "There is no health, no education, and they are encircled militarily. If you leave and you are a suspect you are shot."

Mir puts the number of civilian dead in the last two decades at 600,000, although some media say that figure is too low. Nor does it include the toll in other Latin American countries such as Colombia, where the media report up to 70 violent deaths a day, or in Guatemala and Mexico, which also face a plague of violence fueled by a proliferation of small arms.

A Bull Market

Most of the guns that end up in civilian hands in Brazil are locally manufactured by Taurus, the largest, but not the only, small arms producer and manufacturer in Latin America. It’s website boasts models including the "Raging Bull Big Bore Revolver," the "CIA" model, and a selection of hollow points bullets.

Based near Porto Alegre in the south of Brazil, the company has grown enormously since its humble start some 64 years ago. Today, thanks to exports to, and marketing and distribution in the U.S. and other countries, Taurus has grown into a considerable world player. In the U.S., each purchase of a Taurus gun comes with a free NRA membership.

No less than 33 percent of all the handguns and pistols sold in the U.S. are of Brazilian origin, according to Viva Rio, a civic organization championing a total ban of firearms.

Knowing how trigger-happy some parts of the American society are, Taurus targeted the U.S. market in the late 60s and hired American gun distributors and marketing consultants. Bangor Punta, a huge U.S. corporation purchased Smith and Wesson before picking up 54 percent of the Taurus stock. Within the Bangor Punta structure, both Smith and Wesson and Taurus remained independent companies, but exchanged methodology and technology.

Twenty three years ago, Taurus do Brasil opened a daughter company and affiliation in Miami and began mining the cowboy cache of American weapons. "That [U.S. connection] not only changed the image of the company but also made a difference in the use of handguns in this country," says Antonio Rangel, a senior-researcher and sociologist at Rio Viva, "We see a link between establishing Taurus in the U.S. and the glamorizing the use of guns with younger people. They think it is trendy to be armed and use firearms."

In Brazil, Taurus’s competition was the Italian arms producer Beretta, the gun of choice in many Hollywood movies and television series.

Most of Beretta’s contracts were with the Brazilian military, which was busily arming itself to defend its territory against alleged foreign intruders, to protect shaky borders, and to repress its civil population during the era of the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1984. The police too, were armed with Beretta-designed weapons.

Well known for stylish clothing and industrial design, the Italians brought their panache to the gun market as well. In 1988, when Beretta sold its interests to Taurus in Brazil, a new era of gun designing began and Taurus now features such fashion statements and pink pearl-handled revolvers with gold detailing and a 357 Magnum Gaucho model in Sundance Blue. Taurus also has introduced the infamous "9" series.

Roots of Violence

"That is the handgun doing most of the killings in our favelas," says Nanko van Buren, a Dutch social worker, active in the Roçinha neighborhood. His Rio-based foundation IBISS (Brazilian Institute for the Innovations in Public Health) sets up community development workshops and seminars for the young favela dwellers who face desperate conditions with little hope of a better future.

With half a million inhabitants, Roçinha is a town in itself, build from cardboard and drift wood, but also with concrete apartment buildings perched on mountain slopes with stunningly beautiful ocean views. It is by far the largest slum in Latin America and among the largest and most notorious worldwide.

"The situation there is mostly ignored by the media and is completely out of hand," says van Buren, who adds that the number of homicides in 2004 surpassed even the rivers of blood in Iraq.

"At least twice a week, I have to dodge stray bullets," van Buren says, "but if you are afraid in my line of work, you’re in the wrong business. And today the gangsters have even more sophisticated weapons, such as laser-guided missiles, they use to shoot police helicopters out of the sky."

Most of the gun-related violence has its roots in the cocaine trafficking, says van Buren. Gangs in Colombia and the Amazon region smuggle cocaine-base into Brazil where it is refined in the bigger cities and sent out to the Caribbean and northern South America for further transport to the U.S. and Europe. The gangs have diversified and now engage in human trafficking, trade in endangered wildlife, bank robberies, kidnaping, money laundering, and, of course, arms trafficking.

Arms in Brazil are readily available both legally and in a thriving black market. Many military guns, such as Kalashnikovs (which can be as cheap as $US20) originate in the former Soviet Union where they were used for combat in Afghanistan and in other central Asian republics, as well as in former Yugoslavia and the Balkan countries.

When quantities of these inexpensive and readily available weapons enter Brazil and get into the wrong hands at the wrong time, they transform criminal activities and gang rivalries into major wars; they turn minor, often domestic, incidents into massacres; change tranquil societies into battlegrounds; and undercut efforts for peace and reconciliation.

Big Guns, Big Stakes

The stakes in the referendum were high, not only for a violence plagued civil society, but also for the arms manufacturers and dealers that poured resources into defeating the proposal. The billion–dollar global arms industry has been expanding rapidly since the end of the Cold War and, at times, has reached the highest levels of government. In Argentina, former president Carlos Menem was arrested after transforming the country into a den of illegal arms shipments during the 1990s.

"Menem became the first ex-chief executive and head of state, to be imprisoned in Argentina during a democratic period for smuggling and selling arms illegally," says Rangel.

Menem’s arrest marked the climax of a lengthy investigation that has produced testimony and evidence linking high officials in his administration to the illicit arms sales by the government-controlled arms manufacturer, Farbricaciones Militares. The inquiry also led to the jailing of presidential adviser Emir Yoma, former defense minister Antonio Ernan Gonzalez, and former army chief of staff General Martin Balza.

Prominent arms dealers with official links are not confined to Latin America. Mark Thatcher, son of Great Britain’s Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, was arrested in West Africa for smuggling guns into the war zones. Jean-Christophe Mitterand, son of former French president Francois Mitterand, was charged with helping channel arms worth US$500 million to Angola via French arms company Brenco International, according to the Financial Times.

A Failed Example

Even in its defeat, the government-backed referendum was evidence of a growing public awareness that the unchecked proliferation of small arms has far-reaching consequences for public health and security and incurs staggering human and financial costs. Gun related violence leads not only to the loss of human life, but in Brazil to an economic loss of around 10 percent of the gross national product, according to the Getulio Vargas Institute for Economic Research in Rio de Janeiro.

By 2002, the extent of the violence had roused politicians and law enforcement agencies to line up with the anti-gun movement. Two years ago, the city of Rio de Janeiro organized the public destruction of around 5,000 small firearms seized from criminals. In the glare of media attention, a steamroller crushed small arms and 300 rifles, and a symbolic bonfire consumed guns.

Rubem Fonseca, one of the project designers, called the blaze "The Flame of Peace." It was the second arms destruction in South America, the first being in 1995 in Santiago de Chile.

Earlier this year, the beach-loving citizens of Rio de Janeiro marched for the referendum along the famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema singing anti-Taurus, anti-gun, and anti-violence songs instead of the sweet and carefree refrain of "The Girl of Ipanema."

The demonstration turned into a carnival parade, with contingents of victims of gun violence, law enforcement personnel, high-school students, soccer stars, as well as members of the justice system and Senior Citizens Against Arms.

Many in Brazil and abroad had hoped that a yes-vote on the referendum would make the world’s fifth largest nation an example to the many other countries where guns use is out of control, especially the U.S. and other Latin American countries. International arms industries and pro-gun organizations took a keen interest in preventing that outcome.

They had reason to be concerned. "As Brazilians," Rangel says "we have been innovative and creative with many issues." In 2001, deputies of the State of Rio de Janeiro had approved a new and innovative law prohibiting commerce and possession of light arms as well as the bearing of arms in the state. (Law # 3.219) The National Association of Producers and Retailers of Small Arms responded through its lobby to influence the Supreme Federal Court, which annulled the law.

The U.S.-based National Rifle Association (NRA), has been following Brazil’s referendum closely. "We view Brazil as the opening salvo for the global gun control movement," NRA spokesperson Andrew Arulanandam told CorpWatch a week before the vote. "If gun control proponents succeed in Brazil, America will be next." Arulanandam denied that the NRA had given financial support to influence the Brazilian vote, but had provided "advice to help secure that the ban isn’t passed." He declined to name the recipients of that advice.

Cause and Effect

Proponents of the gun ban understand that had it passed, the referendum would not have immediately solved the problem of violence in their country. "Crime stems from a variety of causes," says Rangel. "In addition to the proliferation of arms, you also have to take into account the always increasing number of poor and unemployed, the rapid growth of urban centers with a young population, increasing drug trafficking and habits, as well as administrative corruption and the consequential incompetence of the police and military."

Rangel says that many civic groups including law and medical students and NGO’s working in the poorer neighborhoods have written to Taurus, but received no response. The several branches of the police and military contacted by civic groups have also failed to respond.

Taurus declined to comment on CorpWatch’s inquiries and neither the police, nor the military responded to our requests for an interview.

"Thousands and thousands of people are killed every year in post-war conflict zones around the world as well as in gang- and drug-related violence, says Rangel who blames gun manufacturers and especially Taurus, for much of the bloodshed. There are almost no military victims, he notes; the majority are civilians. Instead of addressing that issue, the company boasts about the quality of their inexpensive small arms: the automatic rifles, grenades, submachine guns, high powered pistols, ammunition and other weapons that a person can easily transport and fire," he told CorpWatch.