Opinion, by Michael D. Kerlin

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Corcovado Mountain and its foothills just can’t win when it comes to security, but everyone risks rushing too fast to respond to a series of crises on the iconic, jungled hills. Back in 2008, masked gunmen kidnapped three Chinese contractors and a Vietnamese diplomat on the leafy road that runs up to the Christ the Redeemer statue. Then, last Monday, another group, also heavily armed and masked, broke into the ritzy Hotel Santa Teresa and robbed ten guests at gunpoint.

Michael D. Kerlin is an international management consultant who began working in Rio’s favelas fifteen years ago.  Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, News
Michael D. Kerlin is an international management consultant who began working in Rio’s favelas fifteen years ago.

Two days later, a woman was taken hostage in a nearby favela. Then, a young man fell into the hands of armed kidnappers, until he managed to jump out of their moving car.

All of the action could make July 2011 feel like the next November 2010, when burning cars and buses populated the papers and newscasts every day. But it’s easy to overreact in the wake of a security crisis like the one in Santa Teresa this week. The most important thing for everyone to do now is stay the course.

The police need to think particularly long-term, for starters. Some may argue that violent crime in high-profile tourist neighborhoods will send ripple effects that could cripple the rest of Rio. The police are right to pay extra attention, but the Santa Teresa scale-up should be short-lived. Cranking up the staffing levels at the Santa Teresa Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) much more than initially planned means further diluting already stretched police units in many of the city’s other neighborhoods.

The most historically violent favelas are benefiting now from the national army, but they will need all the UPP staffing they can get when the army leaves later this year. On top of that, thousands of criminals are hiding in and around hundreds of other favelas that don’t even have army troops or UPPs yet.

While the police do their work out on the streets, prisons need to keep blocking communications to and from incarcerated gang leaders, who apparently ordered the 2008 Corcovado kidnappings and will surely seek to show their continued influence.

In the midst of this crisis and others that may emerge, the rest of the public and social sectors need to keep their eye on Rio’s broad range of needs. That means resisting the temptation to let their missions creep into security issues and to fight for their social and human development budget dollars from foundations, corporations, and the city and state governments. Only with education, health, economic well-being, and culture will people see better alternatives to donning a mask, hoisting a gun, and scaling a wall into Hotel Santa Teresa.

Rio’s residents and tourists need to stay the course too. What made São Paulo’s 2006 security crisis such a victory for the prison gangs and their thugs on the streets was the ability of the attacks to shut down economic and social activity around the entire city.

In Rio, tourists and residents need to keep going out, shopping, dining, dancing, playing futevôlei on the beach, and visiting Rio’s big natural and man-made attractions. They should still take safety precautions, like carrying limited cash, sticking together, and visiting crowded venues. But they need each other. The crime shield of a well-populated street, beach, or plaza only works if people actually populate it.

Among Rio’s residents, favela dwellers in particular need to keep up the extra shreds of hope that they’ve gotten from the recent security push and their own hard work. That means telling their kids and their neighbors that the drug gangs are not going to win in the long term, and making these prophecies self fulfilling.

While the rest of Rio stays the course, hotel and business owners are among the few groups who need to react more rather than less. That doesn’t mean turning their establishments into prisons. But it does mean taking some extra security precautions, and ensuring guests do so as well—building a culture of vigilance, not a culture of fear.

They should also vet and train their staff members more carefully, given an ex-employee’s alleged involvement in the Hotel Santa Teresa robbery. It is in these establishments that Rio’s self-perception and external perception will emerge when it comes to safety. The danger of big sweeping security victories like the one last November is that hotels and businesses breathe too easily, and rely too much on the police and army rather than on their own eyes and ears.

Security victories and security crises will come and go in Rio. That is the burden of a poor, unequal city, with too many guns in the hands of too many people. But Rio is moving in the right direction, for the most part, so thoughtful moves should trump knee-jerk reactions in Santa Teresa and throughout the city.


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Michael D. Kerlin began working in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas fifteen years ago. An international management consultant, he has written about economic development in the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer, and several other publications.

1 COMMENT

  1. A very well written opinion by Michael D.Kerlin .
    he brought up many excellent points but I think the best statement was blocking communication between the imprisoned gang leaders and their foot soldiers on the outside. There isn’t any easy answer to solving this problem because just as soon as some kingpins are taken down someone fills the void . A relentless long term attack on the gangs and their leaders will eventualy take its toll but just may force them to relocate to other parts of the city. Concentrating on taking the leaders out again and again will cause disarray in the unity of these criminal elements creating the perfect time to step the efforts up ten fold. The old cliche ‘fight fire with fire” may apply here. It’s just my opinion but maybe considering bringing in professionals from this dark underbelly side of life as an option to at least put on the table.
    The knee jerk reaction will be calling these professionals “mercs” “gunwhores” or worse. However just as there are “White Hat” and “Black Hat ” hackers there are professional modern day “warriors” who do live by a code of honor and are just and moral men who happen to enjoy what they do and do it well. They don’t go to the highest bidder with no questions asked as many “mercs” do.
    This will all sound extreme but you have an extreme problem that requires an extreme solution. I have met and worked briefly with these men so I’m not just babbling I know of what I speak. These men being overseen by Brazil’s elite forces and intelligence may be what you need.
    Just my thoughts,
    John H.

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