The Dark Side of Brazil’s Olympic Dreams: The 2016 Olympic Host Battles Poverty, Violent Crime, and Police Brutality

With colorful and scandalous flourishes, in a nation where the bizarre is often normal, Brazil’s Carnaval kicked off throughout the country on February 12th. The celebration is especially exotic in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second largest city, where the samba dancers’ elaborate talents draw millions of tourists each year. Given the huge influx of foreign revelers and the importance of tourist dollars to the Brazilian economy, the government must make very significant investments to provide for the safety and security of these visitors. However, the button-down country that most tourists experience is markedly different from the harsh everyday reality and the entirely routine violence encountered by many ordinary Brazilians. The day before Carnaval began, Rio de Janeiro’s military police clashed with alleged gang members involved in the drug trade in the Jacarezinho slum in Northern Rio. In the skirmish, the police shot and killed seven suspects while one police captain was killed. This type of violence has become a tedious certainty in Brazil’s slums.

As the country prepares to host the two largest sporting events in the world, the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympic Games in 2016, the international community’s scrutiny has pushed Brazil’s poverty, crime, and police brutality issues into the center of the public arena.

While Carnaval brings in nearly 70 percent of the country’s annual tourism tally, greater numbers of visitors are certain to pour into Brazil for the mega-events of the World Cup and the Olympic games. But in advance of this increased tourism, Brazil’s ability to host successful, and more importantly, safe events, has been called into question. These events will test the government’s ability to tackle issues of poverty, rampant crime, and an increasingly violent, brazenly corrupt, and unprofessional police force. Brazil’s response to the pressure that comes with being thrust into the international limelight may serve as the catalyst necessary for enacting long-term reforms of its basic system of law enforcement, as advised by alarmed consultants, and improving the elementary quality of life for its citizens. For the Brazilian government to truly affect lasting change, the focus must not be placed solely on providing short term security for its international visitors. Rather than only “cleaning up” its slum neighborhoods, Brazil must improve the quality of life for those who live in poverty, empower its police force with training, promote professional standards, and implement financial incentives to encourage the use of less aggressive tactics and a greater sense of fundamental discipline.

The International Spotlight Shines on Rio

The international community has raised serious concerns regarding security in Brazil both prior to and immediately following its winning bid to host the summer Olympic Games in 2016. But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) remains confident that there is ample time for Brazil to tackle its massive crime problems. Mark Adams, a spokesman for the IOC, expressed this sentiment, saying that, “we have confidence in [Brazil’s] capacity to deliver a safe Games in seven years.” However, if the country hopes to host a successful World Cup in 2014, the timetable obviously must be expedited. According to an October wire story published by Reuters that suggested that the experience of the Pan American games in 2007 in Rio de Janeiro did little to inspire confidence in Brazil’s ability to provide the facilities and critical infrastructure that would be crucial to the success of a global sporting event. The article concluded that, “much of the pledged infrastructure was never built and it did not provide the economic windfall that residents had expected.” One point in Rio’s favor is that in preparation for the games, the city’s budget will be significantly larger which hopefully will ensure that the necessary facilities will be constructed in time as well as being of high quality.

In advance of the 2007 Pan American games, the Brazilian government launched a series of violent raids in crime areas in an attempt to break up the networks that control Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Ignacio Cano, a sociologist at Rio de Janeiro State University, stated that, at the same time the program was implemented, “officials and the media clamped down on critics of the policy.” Cano continued on to argue that, “if the same state of mind prevails for the Olympic Games, it’s going to be terrible for the city.” A January New York Times article reported that city officials had indeed launched a “pacification program,” just like the one feared by Cano, that involves occupying the 40 most violent slums in the city. While these initiatives illustrate attempts to clean up the city’s image and ensure the safety of its residents, they also could grant unqualified liberty to a police force whose reputation already has been challenged for its use of excessive force and summary execution of suspects. As the government ramps up its presence in the slums, the innocent civilians struggling to survive in these impoverished areas — especially women and children — find themselves caught between violent gangs and an equally brutal police force.

Poverty’s Devastating Cycle

On January 30 of this year, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva received the Global Statesmanship Award at the 2010 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. In his acceptance speech, he touted his country’s economic accomplishments but urged that further development must go hand in hand with the fight against poverty. Brazil has paid off its external debt and accrued reserves totaling $240 billion. Moreover, in recent years, the Brazilian government has decreased the once-massive gap between the country’s rich and poor populations. While 31 million Brazilians have moved into the middle class, the Brazilian elite, or the wealthiest 10 percent, still possess 50 percent of the country’s wealth. Meanwhile, if the government hopes to continue its fight against poverty, it must focus its efforts on providing adequate housing, education, and security to those living in the slums. This will elevate the portion of the country’s population now experiencing a minimal standard of living to a higher level.

Rio de Janeiro alone has nearly 1,000 slums located throughout the city and on nearby hillsides. Nearly 1.5 million of Rio de Janeiro’s citizens are united in their struggle to survive in these favelas. A recent call for action by Amnesty International titled “Demand Dignity in Brazil’s Favelas,” describes the factors that ensnare individuals in the slums’ devastating cycle of poverty. First, housing in the favelas is both inadequate and insecure. The government’s inability to ensure adequate shelter for their citizens confirms the belief of many slum dwellers that their wellbeing is not a priority of Brazilian government. Without a strong government presence, organized crime networks have established control over housing and basic utilities in the slums. Since the government often fails to provide even these most basic of services, residents are forced to turn to these groups for water and electricity.

Secondly, individuals living in the slums have little to no access to education. Amnesty International’s report found that getting to school in the favelas meant navigating dangerous streets and avoiding gang members looking to recruit children. The report also found that “Drug factions are reported to use children as young as five as aviãozinhos (messenger boys) and so start to incorporate them into gang culture.” Even when the students take their seats, ready to learn, violence and crime in the classroom are sadly commonplace. Due to safety concerns and exposure to drug culture at an early age, there exists little opportunity for pupils to take advantage of whatever coursework or positive social structure that the schools might have to offer. Education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty, as it can lead to meaningful employment and improve the standard of living for an entire family. As a result of the random violence in the slums and even within schools areas, children are unable to acquire the skills that are necessary to lift them out of poverty.

Individuals living in these areas also lack access to a reliable healthcare system, which disproportionately punishes women and children. Healthcare workers, due to prejudice and security concerns, are hesitant to enter the slums, where their lives are seriously at risk. According to Amnesty International, this directly impacts pregnant women, who receive neither pre-natal nor post-natal care, which inevitably results in high maternal and child mortality rates. Children are also vulnerable to diseases spread through polluted water and unsanitary conditions in the slums. Deaths resulting from these realities are examples of the innocent lives lost in the struggle between the government and criminal gangs in some of the poorest areas of Brazil.

Finally, personal security issues plague slum dwellers and rob them of opportunities to advance in society. Crime and violence not only prevent students from succeeding in school but also deprive families of the ability to acquire a stable income when fathers and sons are falling victim to gang violence and police raids. Without income, the family’s situation becomes even more dire and further entrenches them in poverty’s clutches. Amnesty International reports that, “years of state neglect has created a vacuum which has been filled by criminal gangs.” Consequently, these gangs control access to crucial social services like housing, healthcare, and education and force citizens to turn to them to survive. These groups continue to perpetuate a culture of violence in the slums that has stolen the promise of thousands of lives.

Brazil’s Crime Problem

Murders, kidnappings, and muggings are common occurrences in the poorest areas of Brazil. According to a report from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) the homicide rate in the country doubled from 15 to 32 homicide victims per 100,000 citizens between 1980 and 2002. Gang warfare and violent robberies have generated one of the hemisphere’s highest murder rates, with Brazil having 35.8 murders per 100,000 people. In addition, organized crime, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), is “well-developed” in both Rio and São Paulo with drug gangs controlling large areas of the city and continually warring with rival factions. Two main issues that underlie Brazil’s crime problems are the pervasive crime networks that perpetuate drug-related violence and underground industries such as the various forms of human trafficking.

Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo’s slum neighborhoods are principally controlled by large, established criminal organizations. In a recent Reuters article discussing the selection of Brazil to host the Olympics, the author writes that, “For the first time in modern history, the IOC selected a host city that has large areas outside state control, dominated by heavily armed drug gangs and militias made up of off-duty police officers and firefighters.” While some residents believe that these groups are helping in the fight against the “true oppressor,” the Brazilian government, no one doubts that these groups are responsible for running the drug trade, trafficking and enslaving men, women and children, and high levels of murders, kidnappings, and muggings.

Comando Vermelho (the Red Command), Amigos dos Amigos (ADA, or Friends of Friends), and Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC, or First Command of the Capital) are three of the most established criminal networks in Rio and São Paulo. While the organization does not have as strong a presence as it once had in the 1990s, Comando Vermelho, founded in 1979, controlled 38 percent of the most violent areas surveyed by the University of Rio de Janeiro’s Violence Research center (Nupev-Uerj) in January 2009. The ADA, a reconciliatory established organization, is one of the chief rivals of the Comando Vermelho. The ADA currently claims control of Rocinha, one of Rio’s sprawling favelas. Violent clashes between the two groups broke out in October 2009 when Comando Vermelho units moved into ADA territory in the Morro dos Macacos slum. Gun battles between the two gangs as well as with security forces erupted with at least 12 vehicles being set on fire. Gang members possessed heavy weaponry and even managed to shoot down a police helicopter, killing three officers. The violence came just two weeks after the IOC selected Brazil to host the Olympics. The ensuing media attention prompted the governor of Rio’s to promise $58 million in funds to better equip police officers to combat the proliferating gangs.

The third gang, the PCC, which began operating in 1993, is primarily based in São Paulo and is responsible for augmented drug trafficking, highway robbery, and terrorist activities. The group is most noted for organizing attacks in May 2006, the worst wave of violence in Brazil’s recorded history. Beginning on May 12, members of the PCC attacked banks, police posts, government buildings, and took over and destroyed various public facilities. Adding to the chaos, prisoners in 73 of São Paulo’s prisons and detention centers rebelled, creating a volatile situation. According to one wire story, the attacks and resulting police response left 200 people dead. While the violence was intended to wreak havoc on the city, the true targets of the attacks were São Paulo’s police officers. These attacks demonstrated the strength of criminal organizations in Brazil and the brutal tension between police forces and these drug gangs that always lies near the surface.

Human Trafficking

These criminal organizations also are involved in the trafficking of human beings and sexual exploitation of women and children. Human trafficking is an illegal industry that enslaves 600,000 to 800,000 victims each year, with a growing number of these victims originating in Brazil. According to the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2009, Brazil is a source country, or nation from which trafficked victims are taken. The report states that 25,000 Brazilian men and boys are annually forced to labor on large farms, cattle ranches and in sugar cane factories. These individuals are subjected to arduous workloads and exceedingly long working hours while being denied access to sanitary facilities, proper nutrition, and healthcare.

While human trafficking exploits a significant number of men for cheap labor, women and children are especially vulnerable. Typically, traffickers target Brazilian women and children from rural areas and bring them to urban centers where they are sexually exploited. According to the State Department, child sex tourism is an especially troubling issue in Brazil, with between 250,000 and 400,000 children trafficked and forced to engage in sexual acts “in domestic prostitution, in resort and tourist areas, along highways, and in Amazonian mining brothels.” Many of these children are taken advantage of by European and American tourists who travel to Brazil specifically to engage in sexual tourism.

The World Cup and the Olympics will not only bring dedicated soccer fans, but also an increase in the number of child sex tourists who will see the event as a prime opportunity to exploit Brazil’s children. As visitors arrive in Brazil, the demand for sexual services from women and children in Brazil’s brothels and elsewhere will increase exponentially. Meanwhile, in South Africa, which will be the first African nation to ever host the soccer World Cup this coming June, concerns over human trafficking have already have been raised. The State Department and the UNODC, in anticipation of an increase in human trafficking prior to the tournament, has urged South Africa to adopt stricter measures to curb the illegal industry. There is little doubt that Brazil will experience a comparable increase in trafficking activity. Brazil must adopt more stringent measures so that offenders are brought to justice prior to the opening ceremonies.

The Violent Police Response

The Brazilian police force is underpaid, understaffed and untrained, making it increasingly difficult for officers to adequately respond to the country’s rampant criminal activity. As a result, the overwhelmed service often uses excessive force to subdue suspects, which sends a powerful message to other potential criminals that the police are anything but professional. In the United States, police are far less likely to employ deadly force than those in Brazil. American cops arrest 37,000 individuals for each incident where an officer kills a suspect. In stark contrast, Rio’s police officers arrest only 23 people for each individual killed. According to a recent report from HRW, in confrontations between police and civilians in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the police have killed 11,000 people since 2003. Each year, law enforcement in these two cities kills nearly 1,000 individuals. The HRW report, titled “Lethal Force: Police Violence and Public Security in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo,” released this past December, examined these so-called cases of “resistance,” police jargon for encounters between police officers and civilians. In 2007, Rio and São Paulo police killed over 1,300 individuals, the highest total on record, and the following year 1,137 civilians were killed by police officers. In 2008, Rio law enforcement killed 825 individuals while losing only 12 officers. This discrepancy illustrates the power that the law enforcement officials have over the citizens, who are often grossly outnumbered in confrontations.

The violence exhibited by the police is, in part, a shortsighted reaction to the frightening scope of the crime and violence now plaguing Brazil. According to the UNODC, “Brazilian police forces, on the whole, are still largely marked by a culture of reactive policing that is concerned with responding to each incident rather than identifying crime trends and preventing future incidents.” With the overwhelming amount of violent episodes, police respond quickly and without concern for the repercussions of their actions. José Miguel Vivanco, America’s director at HRW, recently stated that, “Extrajudicial killing of criminal suspects is not the answer to violent crime. The residents of Rio and São Paulo need more effective policing, not more violence from the police.” Responding to violence with violence has served to perpetuate a destructive cycle in Brazil that must be broken if crime is ever to decline. According to Amnesty International, “heavily armed police incursions into communities are costly in terms of human life and counter productive.” The report continued on to say that once the police leave, the gangs immediately regain control, as if a raid had never been staged.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, Philip Alston, remarked that, after a police operation killed 14 people, “a senior police official reportedly compared the dead men to insects, referring to the police as the ‘best social bug spray.’” This clearly demonstrates the police’s antipathetic perception that their violent actions are justifiable.

Taking the Law into Their Own Hands

Off-duty police officers have formed rogue “death squads” which are militias that effectively bypass rules and regulations to take the law into their own hands. On a trip to Rio in November 2007, Alston found that, “police murder three people a day on average in Rio de Janeiro, making them responsible for one in five killings in the city, which is plagued by drug-gang violence and roving militias of off-duty police.” Groups of off-duty officers patrol the streets and are responsible for extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances. Members of these aptly named “death squads” have, at the very least, the tacit consent of the government.

According to an article published by the Center for International Policy’s Americas Program, of the 1,195 individuals killed by police in 2003, 65 percent showed “clear signs of being executed.” For an individual to be executed, he or she had to be subdued to the point that they could not defend themselves. Many of those killed had at least one bullet in their back, showing that, prior to their deaths, the police clearly already had subdued the suspect and had the advantage in any confrontation. With the upper hand, the police are using this advantage to kill rather than to arrest these criminals and bring them to trial.

Building a Less Volatile Police Force

In advance of the World Cup and the Olympic Games, the Brazilian government has launched a “pacification program,” resulting in even more confrontations between police and residents of the slum. The government hopes that the occupation of these] violent areas will quell security concerns and reassure potential investors, upon whom Brazilian must depend to finance the necessary infrastructure required to host these events. After winning the bid for the Olympic Games, Brazil promised the IOC it would invest large amount of additional resources to improve training and the access to new technology required for its police force. In January, the Brazilian government took a positive step in this direction by establishing programs to adequately compensate public security officials and promote much-needed training exercises.

On January 26, President Lula signed into law two allowances, the Bolsa Copa and the Bolsa Olímpica, which will increase police salaries for those working during the World Cup and the Olympic Games. The paychecks of police officers and firefighters in cities that are hosting the events will be augmented by an increasing amount of money each year and, after the Olympic events end, the add-ons will be permanently incorporated into their wages. The requirement for receiving these grants will be mandatory attendance at human rights courses aimed towards preventing abuses of power. The Bolsa Copa and the Bolsa Olímpica build upon the current program, the Bolsa Formação, which is offered through the Ministry of Justice and gives bonuses to security professionals who enroll in training courses. According to Eduardo Paes, Rio de Janeiro’s mayor, encouraging the law enforcement agencies to focus on the prevention of crime is the most effective way to create lasting reforms within the police force. Increasing police wages further helps eliminate corruption as adequately paid officers will be less likely to rely on deviant behavior to supplement their paychecks.

Finally, for the Brazilian government to truly reform its police force, officers who employ unnecessarily deadly force must be brought to justice. Between 2003 and 2009, police killed 11,000 suspects while only four officers were tried and convicted. HRW has stated that, “a crucial factor in the killings is the power police have to investigate internally all homicides involving law enforcement authorities.” As long as they have complete impunity, officers will continue to use excessive force without fear of repercussion. If the Brazilian government hopes to clean up its police force, law enforcement officers must be brought to justice for this violence.

In 33 of the 51 cases investigated by the HRW, the police reports written by officers was at odds with the actual evidence gathered at the scene. According to the document, “There is complete impunity because the police protect their own.” With this in mind, it continued on to add that an independent organization should be established to investigate the homicides that involve the police force. However, there has of yet not been any attempt by the government to establish such an independent body.

Concluding Remarks

In the months leading up to the World Cup and the Olympic Games, Brazil’s natural beauty and lively cultures will captivate its international audience. For President Lula, these events are Brazil’s opportunity to demonstrate the amazing progress that has been made in reviving its economy and narrowing the gap between Brazil’s rich and poor. Nevertheless, the country’s entrenched poverty, and its problems with crime, and its violence-prone police force all combine to make the country a volatile place to host such important international events. These issues, faced by nations worldwide, have no short-term solutions. The Brazilian government must truly dedicate itself not only to extend a credible positive image to the media during the events, but earnestly combating violent crime as well as its capricious police force. Brazil has emerged as a leader in the global market and is beginning to tackle the problems plaguing its slum neighborhoods. The country needs to show its dedication to remaining a strong presence on the world stage, which is no small task and easily achievable goal.