Head of state and government
Dilma Rousseff (replaced Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in January)
Death penalty
abolitionist for ordinary crimes
196.7 million
Life expectancy
73.5 years
Under-5 mortality
20.6 per 1,000
Adult literacy
90 per cent

Despite some important advances in public security policy, law enforcement officers continued to use excessive force and carry out extrajudicial executions and torture. Death squads and militias remained a concern. Severe overcrowding, degrading conditions and torture and other ill-treatment were reported in the prison and juvenile detention systems and in police cells. In rural areas conflict over land resulted in numerous killings of land and environmental activists. Gunmen hired by landowners continued to attack Indigenous and Quilombola (Afro-descendent) communities with impunity. Thousands were forcibly evicted to make way for large development projects.


Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, took office on 1 January promising to promote development and eradicate extreme poverty. Despite strong economic growth and improvements across most social and economic indicators over the last decade, more than 16.2 million Brazilians continued to live on less than R$70 (approximately US$40) per month, according to census data. In June, the federal government launched a national plan to eradicate extreme poverty within four years. During the year, seven ministers were forced to resign amid allegations of corruption involving misuse of public funds.

The new government pledged to pursue a human rights agenda in its foreign policy. In March, Brazil supported the creation of a UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, but in November was criticized for abstaining on a UN Security Council resolution condemning human rights abuses in Syria. In contravention of promises made on its election to the UN Human Rights Council, Brazil refused to accept the precautionary measures issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the Belo Monte hydroelectric project.

Large-scale development projects under the Growth Acceleration Programme continued to pose risks for Indigenous Peoples, fishing communities, small-scale farmers and marginalized urban communities.

In January, flooding and mudslides swept through a mountainous region (Região Serrana) near the city of Rio de Janeiro. More than 800 people were killed – the majority in the towns of Nova Friburgo and Teresópolis – and more than 30,000 were made homeless. The floods were followed by widespread allegations of corruption involving misuse of public funds earmarked for relief. Some residents made homeless from the previous flooding that hit Rio de Janeiro and Niterói in 2010 were still living in precarious conditions awaiting the provision of adequate housing.

In May, the Supreme Federal Court unanimously recognized the rights of same-sex couples in a stable partnership as equivalent to those of heterosexual couples.

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Past human rights violations

On 18 November, President Rousseff ratified laws limiting to 50 years the period state secrets can be held, and creating a Truth Commission to investigate human rights violations committed between 1946 and 1988. The Commission, made up of a seven-member panel appointed by the President, will hear evidence for two years, before issuing a report. These reforms were important advances in tackling impunity. Nevertheless, there were concerns about conditions that could potentially prejudice the outcome of the Commission, most notably whether the 1979 Amnesty Law, previously interpreted to include those responsible for crimes against humanity, would preclude the prosecution of those found responsible for such crimes through this process.

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Public security

In the face of high levels of violent crime, law enforcement practices continued to be characterized by discrimination, human rights abuses, corruption and military-style policing operations. Promised public security reforms were undermined by severe budget cuts and a lack of political will.

Some states invested in targeted security projects, such as the Pacifying Police Units (Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora, UPPs) in Rio de Janeiro, the Stay Alive (Fica Vivo) project in Minas Gerais and the Pact for Life (Pacto Pela Vida) in Pernambuco. By the end of 2011, 18 UPPs had been installed across the city of Rio de Janeiro. In November, a major police and military operation in the southern zone of the city cleared Rocinha and Vidigal of criminal gangs in preparation for the installation of further units. While the UPPs represented important progress in moving away from policing based on violent confrontation, more comprehensive investment in social services for communities living in poverty was still lacking. In addition, overall reform of the security system, including police training, intelligence and external control, was still needed. Reports of excessive use of force and corruption in some units indicated the absence of effective oversight mechanisms to monitor the UPPs’ presence in the communities.

Socially excluded communities continued to face violence by criminal gangs and abusive policing that often resulted in residents being treated as criminal suspects. This in turn increased social deprivation and distanced communities from broader state services such as access to schools, health care and sanitation.

Between January and September, 804 people were killed in situations defined as “acts of resistance” in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. While in Rio de Janeiro this reflected a decline of 177 from the previous year, the number of reported violent deaths recorded by police as “undetermined” rose.

  • In July, 11-year-old Juan Moraes disappeared during an operation in the Danon community in Nova Iguaçu, Rio de Janeiro state. His body was later found in Rio Botas, Belford Roxo, in the municipality of Nova Iguaçu. A civil police inquiry concluded that he had been killed by the military police and his body removed by police officers. Between them, the four police officers implicated had previously been involved in at least 37 killings registered as “acts of resistance”. Following the killing, the civil police introduced new measures, including mandatory crime scene, forensic and ballistic investigations, in cases registered as “acts of resistance”.

Similar measures were introduced in São Paulo. From April, all cases of police killings in greater São Paulo were referred to a specialized homicide unit.

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Death squads and militias

Police officers were believed to be involved in death squads and milícias (militias) engaged in social cleansing, extortion, as well as in trafficking in arms and drugs.

  • In February, the federal police’s Operation Guillotine uncovered a web of corruption extending to senior officials in Rio de Janeiro’s civil police. Forty-seven serving or former police officers were accused of forming armed gangs, embezzlement, arms trafficking and extortion.
  • In February in the state of Goiás, 19 military police officers, including the sub-commander of the military police, were arrested and charged with involvement in death squads. In June, a special commission investigating police involvement in death squads in the state released a report examining 37 cases of enforced disappearance where police involvement was suspected. Following the release of the report, members of the commission themselves received death threats.

In São Paulo a report by the civil police attributed 150 deaths between 2006 and 2010 to death squads in the north and east of the city.

In Rio de Janeiro, militias continued to dominate large swathes of the city, extorting protection money from the poorest residents and illegally providing services such as transport, telecommunications and gas. This placed vulnerable communities at risk through the imposition of illegal or unregulated services. Those who opposed them were subjected to threats, intimidation and violence.

  • In August, Judge Patrícia Acioli was shot 21 times outside her home in Niterói, in the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro. She had received a series of death threats related to her uncompromising stand against the militias and police criminality. Ten police officers, along with the commander of the São Gonçalo Battalion, were arrested in connection with the killing and were detained awaiting trial at the end of the year.
  • Between October and December, the President of the Rio de Janeiro State Human Rights Commission, State Deputy Marcelo Freixo, who had headed an inquiry into the militias, received 10 death threats.
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Torture and other ill-treatment

Torture was prevalent at the point of arrest and during interrogation and detention in police stations and prisons.

Prison conditions

The prison population reached around 500,000 in 2011, with 44 per cent of all prisoners held in pre-trial detention. Severe overcrowding, degrading conditions, torture, and prisoner-on-prisoner violence were commonplace.

In October, a long-awaited bill was sent to Congress for the creation of a National Preventative Mechanism and a National Committee for the Prevention and Eradication of Torture, in line with requirements under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture. By the end of the year, three states – Rio de Janeiro, Alagoas and Paraíba – had passed legislation for the creation of state preventative mechanisms and one, Rio de Janeiro, had started implementation.

  • In September, a 14-year-old girl was lured to the Heleno Fragoso semi-open prison in Belém’s metropolitan region, where she was drugged and raped over a period of four days. She later escaped and told police that two other adolescents were being used as prostitutes within the unit. Thirty staff members, including the Superintendent of the prison system, were suspended pending an inquiry. After receiving death threats, the girl, along with another girl who was raped in the unit, was forced to enter the Programme for the Protection of Children and Adolescents.

In most states, many prisons and police cells were effectively under the control of criminal gangs.

  • In February, in the state of Maranhão, six inmates were killed – four of whom were decapitated – when riots broke out in protest at overcrowding in the Pinheiro Regional Police Station where 90 inmates were crowded into a cell designed for 30. According to the state bar association, the deaths brought the total number of people killed in detention in the state since 2007 to 94.
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Land conflicts

Indigenous Peoples and Quilombola communities

Indigenous communities continued to be subjected to discrimination, threats and violence in the context of land disputes. In October, concerns were raised when President Rousseff presented a decree to facilitate the provision of environmental licences for major development projects, especially those affecting the lands of Indigenous or Quilombola communites.

The situation in Mato Grosso do Sul remained acute. According to the Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples (Conselho Indigenista Missionário, CIMI), 1,200 families were living in extremely precarious conditions, encamped by the side of highways, awaiting restitution of their lands. Delays in the demarcation process exposed communities to heightened risk of human rights violations.

  • A group of armed men repeatedly threatened and attacked 125 families of the Guarani-Kaiowá community of Pyelito Kue after they reoccupied traditional lands in the municipality of Iguatemi, Mato Grosso do Sul state. In September, armed men arrived in two trucks and fired rubber bullets, set fire to shacks, beat individuals and shouted threats as the community fled in panic. Several people, including children and the elderly, were seriously injured in an attack described by federal prosecutors as genocide and the formation of a rural militia.
  • In November, 40 gunmen, many hooded, attacked the Guaiviry encampment near the Brazil-Paraguay border, shooting Indigenous leader Nísio Gomes dead and taking his body away in a truck. His fate was not known at the end of the year.

In February, three men accused of killing Guarani-Kaiowá leader Marcus Veron were convicted of kidnapping, the formation of a criminal gang and torture, but were acquitted of homicide. At the end of the year, the three were at liberty pending an appeal against their sentences. Marcus Veron was beaten to death on traditional lands in February 2003.

  • In February, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources issued the environmental licence for work to begin on the Belo Monte hydroelectric project in Pará state. Indigenous Peoples and local communities protested at the plans, arguing that the project would affect their livelihoods and that the licence had been issued without a fair consultation process with those affected. In April, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on Brazil to suspend the licensing process pending free, prior and informed consultations with affected groups and the implementation of measures to safeguard their health and physical integrity. The federal authorities responded by withdrawing their representative to the OAS and stopping contributions to the Commission, among other measures.

Rural killings

Land activists continued to be threatened and killed in their struggle for access to land and for speaking out against illegal logging and ranching in the Amazon region.

  • In May, environmental activists José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife, Maria do Espírito Santo, were shot dead by gunmen in the municipality of Ipixuna, in Pará state. They had exposed the activities of illegal loggers, ranchers and charcoal producers in the region. Three men were subsequently arrested in September in connection with the killings. However, threats against the victims’ relatives and community continued.
  • In May, rural leader and survivor of the Corumbiara massacre in 1995, Adelino Ramos, was shot dead in Vista Alegre do Abunã, in the municipality of Porto Velho, Rondônia state. He had previously highlighted the activities of illegal loggers operating along the borders of Acre, Amazônia and Rondônia states.

In the wake of the killings, the NGO Pastoral Land Commission presented the Federal Human Rights Secretary with the names of a further 1,855 people under threat because of land conflicts nationwide.

Violent land conflicts were reported in many other states in the north and north-east of the country.

  • In June, 40 families in the settlements of Assentamento Santo Antônio Bom Sossego and Acampamento Vitória, in the municipality of Palmeirante, Tocantins state, were attacked by gunmen who fired shots over the encampment and threatened to kill land activists.
  • In Maranhão state, residents of the Salgado Quilombola community complained of a sustained campaign of harassment and intimidation by local farmers, who destroyed crops, killed livestock, fenced off water sources and issued death threats against community leaders.
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Housing rights

In Brazil’s urban centres, large-scale development projects – including preparations for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games – left communities living in poverty at risk of intimidation and forced eviction. In April, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination said that she had received reports of evictions involving human rights violations in cities across Brazil, including São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, Porto Alegre, Recife, Natal and Fortaleza.

  • In February, council workers with bulldozers, accompanied by municipal guards, arrived without warning at the community of Vila Harmonia in Recreio dos Bandeirantes, Rio de Janeiro, one of several communities threatened with eviction because of the construction of the Transoeste bus corridor. Residents reported that municipal workers ordered them to leave immediately, without sufficient time to clear belongings from their houses before they were demolished.

In São Paulo, thousands of families were threatened with eviction to make way for urban infrastructure developments, including the construction of a ring road; the widening of highways running along the Tietê River; and the building of parklands along the banks of streams and rivers, where up to 40 per cent of the city’s favelas are situated. Residents affected by the evictions complained of lack of consultation and inadequate compensation.

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Human rights defenders

The National Programme for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders was fully operational in five states – Pará, Pernambuco, Espírito Santo, Minas Gerais and Bahia – and in the process of being implemented in a further two – Ceará and Rio de Janeiro. However, in many instances, bureaucratic problems hampered its effectiveness and some defenders in the programme complained that they had not received adequate protection.

Local NGOs faced intimidation and threats.

  • In Maranhão state, activists working for the Pastoral Land Commission were threatened with death outside a court in the town of Cantanhede. They were attending a hearing related to a land dispute.
  • In Rio de Janeiro, members of the Network of Communities and Movements against Violence were subjected to threatening phone calls and intimidation by police officers.
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Sexual and reproductive rights

In the five years since the Maria da Penha Law on domestic violence was passed, more than 100,000 people had been sentenced under the Law.

In August, in a landmark decision, the CEDAW Committee concluded that Brazil had failed to fulfil its obligation to “ensure to women appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary”. The decision was handed down in the case of Alyne da Silva Pimentel, a 28-year-old woman of African descent and resident of one of Rio de Janeiro’s poorest districts. She was six months pregnant with her second child in 2002 when she died of complications resulting from pregnancy after her local health centre misdiagnosed her symptoms and delayed providing her with emergency care.

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