The city should not be this way: fears over violence in Rio with Olympics near

Amnesty has noted a rise in police violence since April. After pledging to pacify the favelas, is a new policy undoing years of hard work?

The archbishop of Rio de Janeiro was on his way from the Christ the Redeemer statue to the airport when his journey was interrupted by a gunfight that erupted on either side of the road.

For 10 minutes, Cardinal Orani Joo Tempesta sheltered on a kerb behind his chauffeur-driven car as police and gangsters traded shots that crackled through the lofty, leafy neighbourhood of Santa Teresa.

People were scared of stray bullets, he recalls of the incident last month. And there was a sense of disappointment that the city should not be this way.

Such experiences and sentiments are all too common in Rio, the Olympic host city, where violent crime has long been a feature of the social climate. The 2016 Games and the 2014 World Cup were supposed to usher in improvements, but in the past two years the security situation has deteriorated.

Orani is living proof of that. Although he has in theory one of the lowest risk jobs and lives in one of the more affluent areas of Rio, he has been caught up in three incidents. As well as the shooting this 10 June, he was carjacked last July and robbed at gunpoint in September 2014 of his crucifix and a replica of a gold ring gifted to him by Pope Francis.

This is partly misfortune, partly the curse of riding in a luxury car, but largely the result of Rios divisive social, economic and policing policies. The Olympics may even have made things worse.

Orani Joao Tempesta, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Rio de Janeiro who was elected as cardinal. Photograph: Alessandra Tarantino/AP

With less than a month until the opening ceremony, news headlines have been dominated by muggings of athletes, body parts washing up on the shore of Copacabana where the beach volleyball will take place, and a murderous shoot-out in an Olympic-approved hospital. In the later case, a patient was killed and a nurse wounded when more than a dozen gangsters used grenades and guns to free their injured, arrested leader a drug trafficker nicknamed Fat Family.

Meanwhile, police salaries have been delayed by the Rio state government, which recently declared itself in a state of financial catastrophe. In response, officers have gone on strike and staged protests in the Galeo international airport, where they greet foreign arrivals with banner saying welcome to hell and a warning that they are no longer able to guarantee visitors security. Earlier this week, Rio mayor Eduardo Paes described the situation as terrible, horrible.

To reassure Olympic visitors, the federal government has moved in with an emergency loan to cover police salaries. On Wednesday, it also deployed 20,000 national guard, army and navy personnel to protection of Olympic sites. Along with 65,000 police officers, this will be the biggest security operation in Brazils history and double the number of personnel used in London.

But many criminologists and human rights groups argue that the short-term focus on Olympic risks may be pushing policing back towards the old policy of protecting only rich (and mostly white) residents and foreign tourists, while seeing the poor (and mostly black) as the enemy.

For much of the past 20 years Rio has seen an impressive reduction in crime, as a result of economic growth, wealth redistribution, state intervention in favelas and police reforms. From the mid-1990s until three years ago, murder rates fell from 64 for every 100,000 people, to 25.

In its winning bid for the Olympics in 2009, Rio promised major improvements in public safety. The military police said they would ramp up a pre-existing programme to pacify favela communities, previously controlled by gun-toting drug traffickers. For a while, it seemed to work.

In the years that followed, more police resources were dedicated to poor neighbourhoods, where the vast majority of crimes are committed. Some locals complained of invasion, but others welcomed a peace that allowed businesses to thrive and social services to move in, albeit at a disappointingly slow pace. Police were no longer rewarded for the number of drug traffickers they killed. Instead their prospects depended on a fall in crime.

But as the Olympics have drawn nearer, the gains have started to unravel as a result of recession, budget cuts and intensified violence by armed gangs and, most importantly, by police.

Many favela residents say fighting between police and gangs has escalated in recent months.

Brazilian marines stand guard in a favela, before being relieved by the police more than a year after being deployed to ramp up security. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

The number of policemen has increased, said Mayara Donaria, a resident of the Mar favela complex. Every day I hear bullets. They violate our rights, entering the homes of residents and staging stop-and-search blitzes Sometimes they start shooting in all directions on a public street. Its illegal, but for us it has become normal.

I think its because of the Olympics. Because of security for them there is security, not for us.

Noting the 15% increase in murders in Rio last year, Robert Muggah, of the Igarap Institute, says the worry now is that the small public security gains of the past could be lost by the militarised approach to the Olympics and the reversal of the pacification programme.

At a time when the city needs to prioritise long-term public security and safety strategies especially for Rio de Janeiros most vulnerable populations there is a danger that the Olympics encourage an approach that does precisely the opposite, he warns.

Civil society groups express similar concerns. Human Rights Watch released a report on Thursday noting that police are responsible for 20% of all killings in Rio state. Three-quarters of the victims are black men, many of them killed in extrajudicial executions. Although many officers are also murdered, the groups observes that police in Rio killed 24 people for each officer who dies on duty, which is triple the level in the US. Very few are ever punished.

Amnesty International has noted an increase in police violence since April and said the deployment of troops in favelas could lead to an upsurge in violence as was the case in the World Cup year of 2014, when police killed 580 people in Rio State, an increase of 40% over the previous 12 months.

Brazilian authorities are not only failing to deliver the promised Olympic legacy of a safe place for all, but are also failing to ensure that law enforcement agents, especially the police, meet international law and standards regarding the use of force and arms, Amnesty warned.

Rios state government has yet to respond to requests for comment, though it has previously noted that many police are also killed, that officers found guilty of wrongdoing are punished, and that crime levels have improved compared to 10 years ago as a result of the pacification programme.

Armed officers from the pacifying police unit patrol a favela. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

But former police officers say the recent uptick in violence shows that a new approach is needed. Robson Rodrigues, a former commander of the pacification programme during its most successful phase, said the security problem has been massively oversimplified. He said short-term solutions are bound to lead to frustration.

One year, the levels with go down with focussed efforts, and the next they will go up again, instead of investing in a long-term project of decreasing these numbers, he says. The system is failing in the whole of Brazil.

The legacy is the issue. There is no transformative capital in the existing structures.

The archbishop also wishes for a longer-term solution. For the duration of the Olympics, Orani does not expect to be held up by gunfights because Rio will be secured by the police and troops who have now flooded the city. But after the Games, he said, the city also needs to feel safe.

If it is possible in an extraordinary situation, than this should also be secured for regular citizens in any ordinary moment, he says. People should be able to come and go with tranquillity, without fear.

Read more: