RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The attack on the foreign tourist couple that were riding in a passenger van in Rio over the weekend is a horrendous, terrible story that has shocked the world and outraged locals who use the vans to navigate the city. There are two elements that add context to the story for those unfamiliar with the Rio dynamics, and hopefully it will serve as a warning of sorts.
The first is how the public security situation in the city has improved in the last four years, mainly driven by the Police Pacification Unit (UPP) program occupying city favelas. These favelas – or illegal slum housing communities – had for decades been left to their own devices by the government, and drug trafficking gangs thrived.
The UPP program has had successes in some favela communities, but the pacification of some of the largest areas like Rocinha and Complexo do Alemão are an ongoing struggle. A by-product is that many criminals are being displaced from the city into the surrounding areas of the state.
The safer streets in the city of Rio, especially in upmarket areas like Zona Sul (South Zone) unfortunately can give a false sense of security to residents and travelers. An example is dealing with van drivers from outside of the city – areas like the ‘suburbs’ of Niterói – as this van was from.
The van system in Rio has like many things, grown out of the black market, as a sparsely regulated alternative to the city bus system. It is cheaper and often faster then the buses, and for locals an essential element of commuting.
Yet as they are, they are for locals, locals that know the difference of what neighborhoods they are coming and going from, and are familiar with how they should operate. For instance – I have a friend from Rocinha, and years ago she would never take vans that were from Vidigal, they were not locally known to her – and dangerous.
These particular van operators were clearly psychopaths and vile humans, no matter where they live or come from, and since being caught have also been charged with raping a Brazilian girl the week before. Fortunately they were caught before they could do anymore harm, and will likely meet a harsh end at the militia’s hands (the illegal organizations that run the vans).
It may be little consolation for the victims though, and all our sympathy and condolence goes out to them.