The battle for Rio: will the samba city’s murderous crime problem threaten the Olympics?

A Brazilian football hero warned tourists to stay away from the Olympic Games after the shooting of a 17-year-old girl, but the city’s residents can’t escape the endless violence

It was Mother’s Day in Brazil, and Ana Beatriz Pereira Frade was looking forward to seeing her mum. Travelling to Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão airport in the family car, with her stepfather behind the wheel, the 17-year-old and her brother were planning to surprise their mother as she got off her early morning flight. But Ana would never make it to the airport.

On the way there, the car was stopped by a road block set up by armed teenaged bandits who were planning a robbery. Ana’s stepfather tried to drive away to escape the ambush. A shot was fired; for the young girl, it proved fatal.

Her death ten days ago was tragic but hardly extraordinary in Rio – there were 1,202 murders in the samba city last year. The main reason behind this violence is simple: since cocaine trafficking took hold in the 1980s, drug gangs have been fighting one another to control territory in poverty-stricken favelas, using vast hauls of powerful weapons to protect their bases.

These arsenals have made firearms cheap and widely available, meaning small street crimes – which often see bags and jewellery ripped from passersby, as a shocking viral video from earlier this year showed – are also more likely to end in bloodshed. Meanwhile, severe poverty with little opportunity to escape draws more youngsters into the gangs.

While the homicide rate for the more wealthy areas – 3.6 killings per 100,000 inhabitants – is similar to the average across Europe, in poorer parts of Rio it has hit 34.6. And that’s without including the deaths caused by the police, who fight back just as violently and often with impunity, caring little for the ‘collateral damage’ of their actions. More than 300 people were killed by police last year – making up one fifth of the killings in the city. Statistically, Rio is not Brazil’s most murderous city, but it’s no surprise it has become the most notorious.

It was hoped the “police pacification unit” programme of bringing law and order to the favela slums, one by one, would be the answer. This ‘UPP’ policy was announced in 2008, and for a while it appeared to be working. But the police could be just as brutal, and now spending cuts resulting from Brazil’s economic crisis have also taken their toll. By the first six months of 2015, the numbers of of violent deaths in UPP areas had spiked 55 per cent year on year. The problem is getting worse.

With the Olympic Games just weeks away, it took just one killing – and the photo of one victim, Ana – to once again draw the world’s attention to this endemic violence. Her image was posted online by the retired footballer Rivaldo, a World Cup-winning hero to millions of Brazilians, and his message was stark.

“Things are getting uglier here every day,” Rivaldo wrote on his Instagram post. “I advise everyone with plans to visit Brazil for the Olympics in Rio – to stay home. You’ll be putting your life at risk here. This is without even speaking about the state of public hospitals and all the Brazilian political mess. Only God can change the situation in our Brazil.”

In a country struggling with recession, corruption scandals, the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and the Zika health crisis, a resurgence in crime on the streets of Brazil’s most famous city – as it prepares to welcome an estimated 500,000 tourists and athletes – could not come at a worse time.

Though the UK Foreign Office says most visits to Brazil are “trouble free”, it advises British tourists: “Violence and crime can occur anywhere and often involve firearms or other weapons… Don’t attempt to resist attackers. They may be armed and under the influence of drugs.” No wonder Team GB have appointed a head of security to educate the athletes on how to stay safe.

Luiz Eduardo Soares is among millions of cariocas – Rio residents, born and bred – wondering how their city can ever put an end to the violence. “You can be on the street or at home, and people are shooting,” he says, describing how ingrained it has become in everyday life. “Police come by and someone who has nothing to do with the problem can be hurt. Unfortunately, that happens every day.”

Having worked at the heart of government as National Secretary for Public Security for a time back in 2003, Soares is now researching and writing about the problem. Unlike Rivaldo, he is not worried about the Olympics. With 85,000 security personnel being deployed – twice the number of London 2012 – he is sure the problem will be temporarily swept under the carpet, only to come storming back after the sports fans and world media have left.

“We’ll be prepared,” he says, speaking to i from his home in Rio’s hills, “but we only get prepared when the big events happen. That’s the problem.” He explains: “During the Games, as happened with the World Cup, authorities on all levels get together and organise the day-by-day police operations pretty well with coordination and financial support – everything we don’t have in our everyday situation.

“I’m not saying there won’t be problems in the Olympics, but I don’t think it will be especially dangerous. It’s more dangerous for us now then it’s going to be in those special weeks.”

There’s resentment among the population at the situation, he says. “People are angry because they think all the money is going into the great events, the preparation and the building of new stadiums. They know that tourists will be well protected as we’re going to invest millions in that. What they think is: ‘why don’t they spend they money on us, on our security, on our everyday life?’ People know it’s a kind of theatre that we’re going to show to the world. They clean up our streets but only in the parts of the city that make up the normal routes to get to the Games from hotels. People feel abandoned.”

This desperation is exacerbated by the city’s drugs problem. Dr Vinicius Mariano de Carvalho, a lecturer at the King’s College London Brazil Institute who has studied the situation in Rio, says the level of crack cocaine consumption is a particular issue. “It’s a very cheap drug, it’s a very harsh and hard drug and dependence on crack easily moves into physical violence and addicts robbing people to buy drugs. People will see that in the streets.”

Soares has long believed Brazil needs to legalise drugs to tackle the fundamental reasons behind its violent crime – just one of many radical, long-term societal changes he has long been advocating. But the institution that most badly needs root and branch reform, he says, is the police.

“Police are committing crimes of all kinds, robbing and killing. The police – not everyone but many, many, many – are composed of killers, torturers.” This, he explains, is a throwback to the country’s days as a dictatorship: while the advent of democracy led to reform in many state authorities, fear of instability meant the police were left largely untouched.

And being trigger happy is not the only sin of these officers, says Dr Carvalho. “Sometimes the drugs gangs are strong enough to corrupt police forces or even politicians, to add another element of complication. Which part of the police can you trust?”

Perhaps the most controversial reform that Soares argues for is an amnesty for young gang members. The idea is to provide them all with viable exits from lives of crime – other than the likelihood of a brutal end in a dangerous prison – and it was this proposal that led to him meeting a man he describes only as the country’s “public enemy number one”. They shared a car ride together through his favela – an experience he recounts in his new book, Rio de Janeiro: Extreme City.

“It’s very moving when you know that someone is young, intelligent, creative, full of love for his friends and community but doesn’t have a way of dealing with his situation,” says Soares, who condemns the man’s crimes but still recognises his humanity. “He was feeling that his days were numbered and he wanted to start again but didn’t know how to realise that possibility. He called me and asked to talk to me because he knew that I had presented proposals for amnesty many years ago.

“If you have a situation in which someone is really willing to change, it seems to me much better that you support them, rather than throw that person in the garbage, because our prison system is terrible and you’re going to destroy that person.”

Soares acknowledges his views are in the minority, however. “This could be the opinion of 10 per cent. The majority think we should be tougher on crime and the police are ok – if they’re brutal, they should be even more so.”

“People imagine that investing money in the police would solve the problem. I’m sure it wouldn’t. It’s not enough. We have to reduce inequality. We have to reform our schools. There is a whole set of changes that would be more important. But of course then we come to the question of investment.”

Indeed, Brazil’s economy is the seventh biggest in the world, but it shrank by 3.8 per cent last year, and a similar drop is expected by the end of 2016. Things will most likely get worse before they get better. But although Soares will not consider a return to the political frontline, he refuses to be downcast.

“We had a wonderful writer, perhaps our best playwright, Nelson Rodrigues, who used to say without hope we don’t cross the street, without hope we’re not even able to taste an ice cream. So I’m optimistic.”

Rio remains a “happy” place, he says – and if he does ever feel down, he only has to look out of his window. “It’s so extraordinarily beautiful, it’s overwhelming wherever you are, this combination of forests and ocean. It’s important to contextualise the ugly and evil things, but there is also beauty, enthusiasm, passion. It’s not difficult to fall in love with this city… if you survive.”

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