For those who have been following Rio de Janeiro’s preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympic Games—the “Mega-Events,” as they are called in Brazil—headlines from the past month have not been encouraging. First, news spread of unethical tactics employed by city government agents to intimidate residents of favela communities marked for relocation into either accepting below-market value for their homes or agreeing to move into hastily-built, low-income housing projects of dubious construction. Then, Governor Sérgio Cabral Filho’s plans to bulldoze the site of Brazil’s oldest Indian Museum to make way for an “Olympic Museum” provoked strong opposition from indigenous rights activists, many of whom were arrested in a heavy-handed police operation that saw the peaceful protestors as well as a public defender and a judicial prosecutor doused with pepper spray by armor-clad riot police. Days later, the city’s Mayor, Eduardo Paes, tried to downplay the embarrassing revelation that Engenhão Stadium, just six years old and intended to host track and field events in 2016, would have to be closed “indefinitely” due to structural problems with its roof. And then, on March 30, an American tourist was kidnapped, beaten, and gang raped aboard a Rio de Janeiro mini-bus, the latest victim of a rising number of violent sex crimes reported to police in the city.
What’s going on? Wasn’t Rio de Janeiro, with its much publicized, multi-billion dollar investments in urban renewal and economic growth, as well as its ground breaking efforts to reform the brutal state military police and wrest back control of the favelas from drug traffickers, on the right track? The short answer is that things were never quite as rosy as the well-oiled public relations machines of Rio’s elected leaders, or even the official data on violent crime in the city, had us believe.
To their credit, few cariocas, as Rio’s residents are known, ever believed that their governor and mayor were motivated primarily by civic virtue when promoting projects such as the Olympic Park planned for Rio’s Western Zone or the inelegantly-named “Pacification Police Units” (UPPs) that have proliferated in the favelas of Rio’s Southern and Northern Zones since late 2008. As it turns out, their skepticism was well founded.
Take the city’s mercurial plans for the Olympic Park. The original design—the one submitted as part of Rio’s winning bid to the IOC—included provisions for preserving and upgrading the favela community of Vila Autódromo, located astride the development site. Upon winning the bid these promises evaporated and the city government informed Autódromo residents that their entire neighborhood would have to be razed, citing a host of contradictory reasons. Residents could choose to receive cash compensation for their homes or be relocated to housing projects to be constructed a few kilometers away. No one familiar with Rio de Janeiro politics was surprised when it was revealed that the new housing units were to be built on environmentally marginal land owned by two of the mayor’s campaign donors, and that the sweetheart deal had been made without a public tender.
As for the UPP program, most observers agree that it represents a welcome shift away from the old days of endless, bloody clashes between corrupt police and drug traffickers, and toward a more benign and, it is hoped, permanent police presence in and around the communities. Since the program was rolled out in late 2008, official crime data compiled by the police and analyzed by the author as well as researchers at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) show a significant drop in all homicides, including police killings, in and around each of the UPP sites and in the city as a whole. Welcome news, since Human Rights Watch reports that police in the State of Rio de Janeiro (population 15.9 million) killed 1137 people in 2008—more than three times as many people as were killed by police in the entire U.S. that year.
While the program has not been perfect, the principal problem with the UPPs to date is not with where they are, but rather with where they are not. There are over 1,000 favelas in the city of Rio proper, and many hundreds more in the greater metropolitan area, but to date, only thirty favelas have been “pacified.” There are no UPPs to speak of in any of the violence-ravaged neighborhoods of far-western Rio de Janeiro, nor has the state government seen fit to extend the program to any of the densely populated, high-crime municipalities of Rio’s urban periphery. Moreover, the UPPs have had little effect on the milícias, shadowy groups of off-duty and retired police officers that began dispensing vigilante justice and establishing protection rackets across much of Rio’s “unpacified” Western Zone shortly after Governor Cabral’s election in early 2007. Around the same time, a recent study shows that the number of fatalities reported to the Ministry of Health as “violent deaths by unknown causes” began to rise in rough proportion to the fall in homicides—a statistical anomaly suspiciously unique to the State of Rio de Janeiro.
The hard truth is that with just over a year to go before the opening whistle of the 2014 World Cup, politics in the city remain as dirty as ever, urban renewal efforts in the favelas have fallen far short of expectations, and much of the metropolitan area remains firmly under the control of either drug trafficking factions or milícias. It is unrealistic to hope that Governor Cabral and Mayor Paes will solve all of Rio’s problems in time for the Mega-Events. But it is not too much to ask that the billions now flowing into the city be invested with an eye toward making Rio and its suburbs a safer and more livable place for all; that residents of neighborhoods targeted for redevelopment be dealt with fairly and transparently; and that potentially transformative initiatives like the UPP program be expanded over time to serve the entire metropolitan area and not disbanded and forgotten—as has happened with other such efforts in Rio’s recent past—when the last race is run and the closing ceremonies end in 2016.