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Associated Press photos
A journalist photographs weapons, drugs and ammunition seized by police in Rio de Janeiro. Firearm deaths in Brazil still rank among the highest in the world.

Gun culture dogs Brazil

Drug war violence echoes near World Cup activities

An alleged drug trafficker poses with an assault rifle in an alley in western Rio de Janeiro. Brazil’s drug trade has created a culture steeped in violence.

– A stray bullet hits the neck of a small boy near an area where thousands of soccer fans had earlier watched Brazil play on a giant screen. A volley of gunfire is heard near Honduras’ training camp. An angry off-duty police officer is caught on camera pulling out a handgun and firing two shots in the air to scatter protesters.

From northeastern Fortaleza to coastal Rio de Janeiro to the rural interior of Sao Paulo state, the sound of gunfire has echoed during this year’s World Cup.

Firearms proliferate in Brazil, where the drug trade has created a culture steeped in violence. With the world’s eyes on the South American country for international soccer’s premier event, it’s inevitable that Brazil’s gun culture is being noticed as well.

The more than 15 million weapons in the country are carried, mostly by gang members and police.

Firearm-related deaths in Brazil are still among the highest in the world, even though the number of murders in the country has stabilized in recent years. About 40,000 people are killed annually by guns in Brazil, roughly four times the number in the U.S., the world’s biggest civilian gun market and a country larger by more than 100 million people.

The flood of weapons belies tough gun laws that would make many National Rifle Association members cringe. Like everything else in bureaucratic Brazil, from opening a bank account to starting a business, buying a gun can be time-consuming.

Along with a background check, buyers must complete an affidavit stating why they want a gun, undergo an evaluation by a psychologist and pass a test demonstrating they know how to handle the weapon.

As a result, most guns are obtained illegally. Gang members who dominate slums covering large swaths of cities like Sao Paulo and Rio prefer imported assault weapons that are smuggled across the largely porous border in the Amazon and other jungle areas.

Pistols and smaller-caliber guns are mostly manufactured in Brazil and sold legally, but wind up on the black market by gangs dedicated to stealing weapons or by police officers who seize them at crime scenes.

“Brazil is engulfed by violence and a lot of people are lured into thinking that by arming themselves they can defend themselves,” said Antonio Costa, founder of Rio da Paz, a group that works to reduce violence. “But it’s a complete fallacy, because the bandits are always better armed and know to strike when the victim least expects it.”

Armed gangs don’t appear to be targeting the tens of thousands of tourists who have flooded into Brazil, or otherwise disrupt the World Cup. But the frequent gunfire has intruded on the soccer tournament.

In the latest shooting Tuesday night, two people in a car drove by with guns blazing on the same beach in Fortaleza where hours earlier thousands of fans gathered at the FIFA Fan Fest to watch Brazil battle Mexico to a scoreless draw. A 7-year-old boy was rushed to the hospital with a bullet wound.

No other gunfire injuries related to the Cup have been reported.

Costa says he’s pessimistic that the country’s gun violence will wane, saying that only a major tragedy could raise Brazilians’ awareness about the risk of firearms.

He pointed to President Dilma Rousseff’s signing this month of a law allowing prison guards to carry firearms off-duty, in response to threats from inmates and their cohorts on the outside, as a reflection of an entrenched culture of self-defense in the face of widespread impunity that leaves 90 percent of the nation’s homicides unsolved.

Since voters in a 2005 referendum rejected a ban on the sale of guns and ammo to civilians, the government has relied on a disarmament campaign aimed at halting the spiral of violence, paying $200 to anyone who turns in a weapon.

But many of the 600,000-plus weapons surrendered in the past decade are aging rifles and pistols, not the automatic weapons that criminals carry.

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