Opinion, by Michael Royster

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Seven dead in favela mudslides: cause, torrential rain. Ten dead in dormitory fire: cause, flamingo vultures. Thirteen dead in Santa Teresa: cause, band-of-brotherly vigilantes. Last week, in fewer than 48 hours, the body count in Rio de Janeiro reached thirty (30).

Michael Royster, aka The Curmudgeon
Michael Royster, aka The Curmudgeon.

Are you not surprised? Do you yawn?

Now, guess how many people will be punished for causing those deaths — no fair if you peeked at the answer, because it’s … surely you already knew this … Nobody, ninguém, nemo, nadie, niemand, nessuno, il n’y en a personne.

The Curmudgeon, who never yawns, has long been confounded by the nigh-universal Brazilian acceptance of impunity. Too many people die from wrongful deaths 24/7/365, and yet, nothing is ever done about it, other than a great deal of hand-wringing and shedding of crocodile tears by government officials.

There are two phrases commonly heard after these tragedies—“foi uma fatalidade” (“stuff happens”) and “bandido bom é bandido morto” (“a good bandido is a dead bandido”).  Both phrases purport to rationalize and, somehow, justify impunity after eminently predictable and preventable fatalities.

There is a cultural and linguistic divide at work here. Fatalities, in English, means deaths. Fatalidades, in Portuguese, means ineluctabilities—things that cannot be avoided or evaded.

Consider, first, the seven (7) dead in favela mudslides. Yes, it rained a lot—a month’s rain in 24 hours—but should that be an excuse for the deaths? Is it merely a “fatalidade” because no one can control the rain in Rio? Or, rather, is there something that could have been done—for instance, adequate storm drainage systems—to avoid the fatalities?

Consider, next, the thirteen (13) dead in Santa Teresa. Once again, the police swarmed uphill, guns blazing, into one of Rio’s favelas, the scene of deadly turf wars between competing criminal gangs. There are two types of gangs, one comprising civilians (drug lords, numbers racketeers), the other law enforcement officers (police, military, prison officers). When gang members die in shootouts, they become “good bandidos”; when innocent bystanders die, they become “fatalidades”.

Consider, next, the ten (10) youths dead at Flamengo’s training camp, ironically nicknamed the Vulture’s Nest. They were housed in former shipping containers, with one door in and out, in an area designed to be a parking lot. Everyone knows the Rio Fire Brigade had never certified the facilities as safe. Flamengo’s Board of Directors has told the club’s supporters that the absence of clearance by the fire brigade is irrelevant, so the deaths were only a “fatalidade”.

Are you convinced by any of the arguments put forth as justifications for these thirty (30) fatalities?  The Curmudgeon is not convinced. Something could (and should) have been done in all these cases. However, the fact remains that nothing was done, and it is unlikely that anyone will ever be punished for not having done what ought to have been done.

Much as it pains him to say it, the Curmudgeon knows that in Rio, as in the rest of Brazil, fatalities are almost always treated as “fatalidades”.


  1. In each of the scenarios that led to the fatalities, you characterize them as ‘everybody knew’ situations. You are included in the ‘everybody’ aren’t you? If you care so much, why weren’t you doing something proactively about these situations that you admit you knew about? I think authorities, and citizen folk with no authority at all, try to do the best they can with the minimal resources they have to do with. I don’t blame those people who theoretically should have prevented these things from happening, any more than I blame the victims who knowingly put themselves in harms way. I do find fault with anyone who uses the tragedies to point fingers and draw attention to themselves though, like you are doing.


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