Opinion, by Samantha Barthelemy

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – In less then a week Brazilians will flaunt into voting stations to choose their next leader. Whether Mr. Serra, of the Social Democratic Party or Mrs. Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party, is elected, a tough challenge will remain. On top of endless priorities, the new president will have one major responsibility: transforming Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.

Samantha Barthelemy, Carioca in New York specializing in International Security Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications.

Breathtaking landscapes, coveted carnival celebrations, paradisiacal beaches and beautiful women popularly characterize Brazil’s Marvelous City. But exoticness is not all Rio is known for around the world.

Fifteen days after landing the bid for hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics on October 2, 2009, Rio was placed under a harsh international spotlight.

On October 17, 2009, drug traffickers shot down a police helicopter, killed at least a dozen people and set eight buses on fire, in the favela Morro dos Macacos, just one mile from Maracanã Stadium – the venue chosen for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and the 2014 Soccer World Cup final. At the very least, the episode underlined the challenges faced as authorities attempt to improve security and the city’s image abroad.

Maybe this was a blessing. The government’s defensive denial is now impossible, and dealing with rampant crime and violence through investment in comprehensive social programs has become inescapable. If not to better the lives of the city’s six million residents, then at least to honor the country’s commitment to bring the first – successful and trouble-free – Olympics to South America.

According to government figures, Rio has one of the world’s highest murder rates, with 4,631 homicides in the metropolitan area in 2008. That is nearly thirteen people a day.

The alarming violence is mainly restricted to Rio’s 1,000-odd favelas, where vicious drug factions govern freely, terrifying millions of residents – held hostage between neglectful authorities and iron-fisted gangs – and luring young boys into a short-lived life of crime.

Occasionally, violence reaches the wealthiest doorsteps.

A gun battle between drug gang members – armed with high-caliber rifles, pistols and hand grenades – and the police, on August 20, 2010, led to the taking of 30 hostages in Rio’s luxury Intercontinental Hotel, a favorite amongst tourists. One woman was killed, and four bystanders and three policemen were wounded. Again, Rio scored front-page headlines around the world.

Scenes evocative of civil war repeatedly tarnish the city’s image. Let’s be honest, one more episode could seriously raise the chances of revoking the International Olympics Committee’s decision. What a shame that would be.

The state government’s decade long response has been to meet violence with sporadic and deadly police raids, often targeting entire favela communities. A Human Rights Watch report, launched on December of 2009, found that the number of police killings in Rio state reached a record high of 1,330 in 2007 – including alleged self-defense and extrajudicial killings.

There is something fundamentally wrong with our society.

By and large, Rio is a safe place. I can attest to that, having lived there for 19 peaceful years. But what makes the city’s situation worrying is not just alarming murder rates, but the decades of neglect of the city’s most vulnerable, the unrivaled power gangs exert over these communities and the impunity under which they operate. And this will no longer be tolerated.

Even if belatedly, the state has been investing in Police Pacifying Units (UPPs), a program launched in 2008 to liberate Rio’s slum dwellers, replacing drug gangs with a permanent, hearts and minds-style police presence. That is a nice start, but so far UPPs have been little more than show. Drug gangs have reportedly fled from one occupied territory to another “unpacified” one, carrying with them fear and violence.

By the end of 2010, authorities expect to “liberate” 40 favelas – at present an overly ambitious target. What about the other 960?

True, you have to start somewhere. But let’s not pretend the solution is to “end violence”. The problem lies in failed approaches to drug trafficking and consumption, lax gun laws, ineffective and neglectful authorities and a pervasively destructive culture of permissiveness.

How about we take this opportunity – and moment of necessity – to engage in transformative programs, offering an alternative to crime, misery and violence for millions of Cariocas. If we do not invest heavily in parallel social projects, education and job creation, the pacification ideal is doomed to fail.

Give us back our right to live in security and peace, whether today, tomorrow or in 2016.

A Belgian-Brazilian native of Rio de Janeiro and former United Nations journalist, Samantha Barthelemy is a dual degree Masters of International Affairs student with Columbia University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, specializing in International Security Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications. http://samanthabarthelemy.blogspot.com/


  1. The solution – the ONLY long-term solution to the city’s violence is to invest in education and create opportunities for people to succeed in life. Education = investment in schools and colleges and universities – in addition to basic health education in relation to (unwanted) pregnancies and such.

    The UPPs are nothing more than makeup. The police are bigger thugs than the traficantes. And to be totally honest, Rio doesn’t need the Olympics and i hope that they get taken away from here and given to another city – which is highly likely if another violent incident happens.

    I mean, after last night’s heavy rainfall, my Zona Sul street was flooded with sewage – Rio has bigger priorities than building some sports stadiums for a two week event. What will Rio do with an expensive swimming stadium… gymnastics stadium… basketball stadium… etc etc… after the Games are over..?

  2. Dear Diego, thank you for leaving your comment. I agree with you: the only long term solution to Rio’s main “problems” – and the country’s as a whole – is heavy investment in education and in the creation of opportunities. You also ask very pertinent questions: what will happen to the infrastructure created for the Olympics once the games are held? And what will happen to the people who contributed to their creation and could plausibly find themselves unemployed after their “job is done”?

  3. I would add that a constant campaign teaching what is and what isn’t acceptable behavior from government and society (meaning us) in general is also essential.

    Poverty is not a excuse for violence, it has never been, although it can be a factor causing it. VIolence comes from the outlook in life.

    An egalitarian society is based upon understanding and support, here is the law of the fittest, and that is fueled by a vision that separates people with very clear boundaries halting any kind of improvement.
    Look at the northern parts of Europe and you will see a nice example of society development.

    In here the ‘law’ is, if you are in need, you gotta submit to any kind of thing, in the other hand the sorrowfully guilty middle and upper-class carry on treating the rest as if they were only worthy the pity, thus putting a huge part of society in an very inferior position.

    Well, you can educate and do whatever you want, but until this balance and behavior changes, I see little changing.

    Deep cultural changes are needed for anything to really work.

    Basically is everyone’s fault that this violence got out of hand and it is about time that people leave their lofty philosophical heights and get their hands dirty for a change.

  4. On other note, I feel that anything that actually boost morale is a good thing. What isn’t is the corruption that comes with it.

  5. Dear Lilly,

    Thank you so much for your insight. It is quite shocking to me – living for the past seven years in the U.S. and Europe and going back an average of twice a year to Rio – to notice how “normal” the violence and shocking inequalities have become to fellow middle and upper class cariocas. We have learned to cohabit, eventually being shaken by occasional “arrastoes”, hostage takings, tragic evening news and the like, but mostly ignore what happens to the “poor over there in the favelas”. No, this is not normal, and no it cannot continue to be tolerated. It is more than time for us to get out of our “philosophical heights” and realize that change isn’t just a responsibility of our government, but it needs to come from each and every one of us.

  6. Indeed, and I feel that to make everybody to take responsibility is probably the more difficult part when talking about Brazil.

  7. Samantha, just a thought here–one “change that needs to from each and every one of us” is that the middle and upper classes in Rio, Brazil, the US and Europe must stop using all the recreational drugs that are the lifeblood of the criminal situation in the favelas. A real “war on drugs” would combat this, not coca leaf plantations or kids on motorcycles in Rocinha. But it is still regarded as “normal” in the US and Europe for people to do recreational drugs, paying through the nose for them, while wringing their hands about the poor downtrodden favelados. Such hypocrisy!

  8. Dear Michael,
    THANK YOU for your comment! Large parts of Rio de Janeiro’s upper and middle classes live in utter hypocrisy. Of course the “pobre favelado” and the government’s corruption are the causes of all crime and violence. It is definitely easier to point that finger than it is to look into our inner circles and objectively tackle the issue of drug consumption. It is “cool” to smoke weed at parties. Or what’s worse, it is even “cooler” to go up favelas, buy drugs and brag to your “friends” about it.

    In addition, we all know these drugs do not stay in the favelas – be it for distribution or consumption. And ironically enough, drug traffickers and drug gang members are not rich – unless you define living in shacks in Rio’s slums as upscale living. So one cannot help but wonder, who are the millions of reais going to?


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