Headed to Rio? Beware of surging street crime
400,000 fans expected for World Cup in June in Brazil, and in Rio, the country’s biggest tourist destination, muggings have soared.
Northwest travel guides
The two boys had knives. So Carlos Guzman handed over his wedding ring, iPhone and wallet. What really galled him was that the police said they knew where one of the boys lived, yet took no action.
“They told me I was lucky I didn’t offer any resistance, because this kid has been known to stab people, but since he’s underage they can’t do anything,” said Guzman, 36. “I think it’s going to get worse with the World Cup.”
Street crime is surging in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s biggest tourist destination, as police brace for the 400,000 fans expected for the quadrennial soccer tournament in six weeks. The lawlessness coincides with a slowing economy and simmering discontent after a decade of increasing peace in the slums, known as favelas, scattered throughout the city.
Muggings jumped 19 percent last year to 37,412, according to official figures. That’s double the amount in New York City and Mexico City, though Rio, with 6.3 million people, has about 2 million fewer residents. In the main tourist area, which includes the neighborhoods Copacabana, Flamengo and Ipanema, where Guzman was assaulted, such crimes increased 49 percent. Muggings there jumped 53 percent in January from last year.
Ipanema and Arpoador beaches last year suffered a series of incidents known as “arrastoes,” or “big drags,” in which gangs sprint through crowds hitting people and snatching what they can. While TV channel Globo questioned a woman on camera about the muggings, a boy pulled the interviewee’s necklace off and the interviewer took off after him in vain.
“We know our country may be harmed when this violence is seen by the world,” Brazil Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo told reporters in December.
During the World Cup, police plan to secure a perimeter around Maracana stadium, where the final match will be held, and other tourist areas, and deploy almost 7,000 military police officers, including 2,000 whose vacations were postponed, according to an April 10 statement. Another 156 foreign- language-speaking officers will work around the city.
The police presence in Rio has grown as authorities prepare for the World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Civil and military police forces reached 54,173 in 2013, up 11 percent from 2007, according to the state security office.
Foreign-tourist arrivals in Rio rose to 1.76 million in 2012 from 1.46 million a decade before, according to the most recent data. The national tourism agency expects 600,000 during the month-long World Cup, with two-thirds descending on Rio.
Officials dispute the factors behind the jump in crime. Statistics vary for “several operational reasons,” the state security office said in an emailed statement. Jose Mariano Beltrame, head of security for Rio state, which includes the city, declined requests for an interview.
Pedro Fernandes, Rio state’s secretary for social aid and human rights, said he believes the crime surge stems from greater drug use, especially crack cocaine.
Other experts disagree. There is no research documenting an upswing in crack consumption affecting crime, said Ignacio Cano, a sociology professor at the Univerity of the State of Rio de Janeiro, or UERJ. “The idea that crack is behind crime is a mystification,” Cano said.
Cano points to stubborn poverty in the favelas, home to 1.4 million people, or 22 percent of the population, even with drug gangs in retreat. Police since 2008 have established 37 so- called pacification units, known as UPPs, in slums the gangs had controlled.
The units’ drives begin with the police, sometimes accompanied by troops and armored vehicles, taking control and then remaining for months, as opposed to the former tactic of lightning incursions to capture criminals and seize drugs. That often led to pitched combat.
Amid the crackdown, the national economy has sputtered. Gross domestic product expanded by an average of 2 percent from 2011 to 2013, the slowest three-year pace in a decade. The median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg is for 1.8 percent growth this year. From 2006 to 2008, the economy grew at a 5.1 percent annual clip.
The slowdown has contributed to a fading sense of opportunity, said Theresa Williamson, executive director of Catalytic Communities, an advocacy group that works in poverty- stricken neighborhoods. In addition to poor education, favelas still have spotty electricity and water, scant garbage collection and often open sewers, she said.
“People only resort to extreme things when they don’t have hope, and two or three years ago they were so much more optimistic,” Williamson said by telephone from Rio. “The increase in crime is a result of hopelessness.”
To be sure, Rio remains far less dangerous than it was during the 1990s, and the recent backslide probably won’t effect investment, according to James Guldbrandsen, an asset manager in Rio for New York-based NCH Capital Inc.
“When I got here 17 years ago it was a completely different place; you couldn’t walk outside the hotel in Copacabana at night,” Guldbrandsen said in an interview. “Now it’s anything but that. Yes, it’s slow steps, but we are moving forward.”
That’s little consolation to Sydney Blumstein, 30, who was set for sun and samba after arriving last year. Just six hours later, she and a friend were mugged in Copacabana. A week later, two teenagers held them up again near the Lapa Arches, an 18th century aqueduct and tourist highlight.
“It was like seeing something with your own eyes that you’ve heard about and don’t believe until it happens,” Blumstein, a Manhattan real estate broker who has visited 37 countries, said by phone. “I’ve told everyone who’s asked me about Brazil since then: Don’t bring anything too precious, because there’s a good chance you won’t be taking it home.”
As for Guzman, who was mugged in the Ipanema neighborhood at 8 p.m., police said officers couldn’t arrest the alleged perpetrator, as he wasn’t caught in the act. He will be asked to give a deposition, according to a police statement.
After Blumstein and her friend were mugged at knifepoint, police apprehended the boys and, at the tourists’ request, released them in exchange for their camera’s return. They let the boys keep the money, and even gave them a bit more.
“Our life is really hard,” one of the boys said, according to Blumstein. “And it looks like these girls have a life that’s really easy.”