Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Rio de Janeiro

I recently compared notes about Rio de Janeiro with JJ from The view from down South: a Liberal in DC. http://dcgrit.blogspot.com/2007/01/pictoral-interlude-v-view-from-above.html One of the topics of conversion was crime and Cariocas’ subjective feelings of personal safety. I have expanded on some of those musings below.

How safe one feels depends on were you live in Rio. If you live in Ipanema, or Leblon, your sense of personal safety is going to be much better than if you live in Duque de Caxias. That said, regardless of where someone is in Rio, crime, or the threat of it, affects people’s behavior. As you know, because of the threat of being car jacked people rarely stop at red lights after dark. On the flip side of things, a code of conduct has developed amongst many muggers. They appreciate the cost of getting a driver’s license etc and so will dump emptied wallets and purses in the mail box. Such niceness would not be possible if the post office had not set up a program to facilitate it. The fact that they bothered speaks volumes about just how common such muggings are. Crime has turned Rio’s many dozens of malls into beehives of activity involving the whole family. Malls in some parts of North America have failed because the environment they offered is too sanitized, in Rio that is the attraction. Rio’s malls are in many respects self contained communities; they have everything from daycares, to stores and movie theaters. Brazilian law helps facilitate such feelings of safety by placing the onus on the mall to keep its customers safe. For example, under Brazil law, you can sue the mall, if your car is broken into in a mall’s parking lot. The same is true if you are mugged.

Rio is also in many ways a city on the edge. There are always plenty of riot cops in full gear in the downtown core (In and around Rua Branco) and the army is always out during Carnival checking people’s papers. I once counted 23 riot police on a Monday afternoon on Setembro street just milling about. Incidentally, I did not see any kind of protest downtown. However, I did see some in Duque de Caxias and one did get ugly. Tear gas was let off and rubber bullets were flying. Finally there are the nightly checkpoints. The Red Line is famous for them. They are a nightly occurrence and they are almost always set up in the same fashion. One cop car is parked across the highway limiting traffic to one line. There is another cop car behind pointing down the highway. Leaning on the hood of the second car is a guy armed with some kind of machinegun, sometimes heavy but mostly light. He is pointing the gun down the highway. You are directed to stop just at the spot where he is pointing. The police look in the car and either pull you over or wave you through. Many people turn on their lights to prove they are not black. Brazil is not as post racial as it likes to think.

Part of the problem is this. The favelas, where the gangs such as the Comando Vermelho (Red Command), are based, are de facto sovereign entities. Even locals seek permission before they enter and the boundaries between them and the rest of the city resemble at times boarder crossings. The police only venture in when they are well armed. In both Rio and Sao Paulo, police sometimes venture in inside an armored personal carrier, a caveiraos, painted black with skull painted on the front. The aforementioned Red Line cuts through Mare favela and the debate about whether to “wall in” the favela nicely captured the divide. http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/world/20050602-1309-crime-brazil-wall.html The place at which the Red Line cuts through the favela has been the seen of more than few shootouts and robberies of motorists stuck in traffic and it was proposed that a wall be constructed in this area. Much to dismay of people I know, the wall was never built. If for no other reason than the chance of accident would be significantly less, I can sympathize. Rio drivers are not known for their good driving habits at the best of times and the road narrows at this point, there is curve in the road and people speed up.

For those wishing to see a favela, there are guided tours – slum safaris if you will. They are safe. The tour operators give the gangs a cut of the profits in return for safe passage.

The police are still the meanest kid on the block. A third of all homicides are attributed to them. However, the power of the gangs even outside the favelas should not be understated. Not only can they be not wiped out, they have the ability to bring Rio to its knees. Indeed, whereas in Canada the schools sometimes close because of snow, in Rio schools shut down from time to time because the Red Command has threatened to shoot them up. To prove they mean business, they shoot up one or two. This is one tactic the gangs use to bring the government to the negotiating table. Sometimes it takes other forms. Last month, for instance, they boarded a city bus and set it alight with the passengers still on board. 7 were killed. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6214299.stm

I was not the victim of any real violence. The cops shook me down for 50 bucks and I was tailed on a bus, but that was the worst of it. The locals I associated with were not as lucky after I left. A person I stayed with was murdered 3 months after I left. He went to pick up some groceries some 5 minutes walk from where I stayed, got in argument and was shot 6 times in the head. It is common knowledge as to who the murderer is, but no eyewitness, and there was many, have come forward. The investigation is thus stalled. This is not unusual for the northern part of Rio. Well under 50% of all murder cases are solved. Another person I knew literally got his head kicked in by the cops. He stupidly mugged someone at the Lagoon and was caught by the police. Someone took a picture using a cell phone camera of a cop kicking him in the head. The picture made the papers. Soon after I left the cops went on a rampage in Baixada and murdered 29 people in one day of bloodshed. I used to do some of my shopping near the site of the carnage. http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAMR190302006?open&of=ENG-351


JJ said...

Thanks for sharing your additional thoughts and continuing on the discussion... would be interested in hearing your thoughts on potential solutions too...

Koby said...

Bringing Brazil’s war on drugs to end should help, but I have no idea how much. It would dry up one source of funding for the gangs. On the flip side of things, something has to be done about the police violence and corruption. Needless to say, this is easier said then done. However, there are some concrete steps that can be taken. For example, Rio’s elite anti gang cops should be reigned in. For god sakes this is their theme song: "Man in black/ What is your mission?/ It is to invade the favela/ And leave bodies on the ground."

Anonymous said...


I'm a student from Brazil and I'm working on a research project about favela tours. We're now working on the tourists's perceptions about tourism in Rocinha and were wondering if you would like to participate as an interviewer. We could send you the questions (about 15) by email and would appreciate it if you could get ck to us with any suggestions you find useful.

Thank you for your attention,