RIO DE JANEIRO — FEAR of crime has taken a bite out of Rio de Janeiro's tourism industry. But a new community group called ``Viva Rio'' is helping to combat the problem.
A United States-style neighborhood watch committee, Viva Rio is mobilizing retired citizens and police to fight crime in the famous Copacabana Beach area.
Police Captain Ubiratan, who goes by just one name, says if the program is successful, it will be expanded to nearby areas, such as Ipanema Beach. ``I'm sure this will help solve the security problem,'' he says confidently.
Over the past few years, Rio's tourism industry has been tainted by an international perception that crime is rampant throughout the city. Hotel-occupancy rates declined from 60 percent in 1992 to 50 percent in the past two years, according to Rio's Hotel Association. US tourists have stayed away in droves. The US State Department even issued a travel advisory cautioning Americans about Rio's street crime. Washington, however, is reviewing that advisory.
Brazil's high unemployment, skyrocketing inflation, and high poverty rate have contributed to violent crime against Rio's well-to-do citizens and tourists, in particular. Brazil has the greatest division of wealth between rich and poor in South America.
And unlike many other tourist cities in the developing world, Rio's favelas (slums) sit on hills located directly above the city, only a short walk from some of Rio's nicest tourist beaches. The favela resident ``has no food, and the neighbors have caviar and [wear] Nike shoes,'' Captain Ubiratan explains. ``It's a big problem.''
But Itamar Rigueira, spokesman for Embratur, the Brazilian tourist bureau, claims that the impression given by the international media that all of Rio is seething with crime is not true. ``Crime mostly happens in the poor areas,'' he explains. ``The situation is much better now. The seafront has the `Tourist Police,' and hotels have the private security guards.''
The Tourist Police, established in 1992, is a special police unit that patrols the seafront to protect visitors. Like other Rio police, Tourist Police officers are underpaid. One officer with five years of experience earns only about $190 a month. That doesn't go far in Rio, where consumer prices are about equal to those in the US.
Many residents believe that the police split profits made from crime with young thieves, contends Ruebem Fernandes, the president of Viva Rio. So, while the seafront is patrolled, he says: ``You have [corrupt] security, both private and public.'' A popular song in Brazil is ``Call a thief, the police are coming.''
Despite the Tourist Police's presence on nearly every corner, Viva Rio is needed because many tourists are still afraid to visit Rio, Mr. Fernandes claims. The crime problem remains serious even though tourist safety has improved in the past 18 months, and property crimes against visitors were down 6 percent from 1992 to 1993, he says.
The goal of Viva Rio is to attack the problem head-on by organizing residents to watch criminals and police. Fernandes and his organizers met last month with groups ranging from the Lions Club to church members in an attempt to recruit volunteers. Neighborhood block committees will also meet with police to offer ways to increase security.
Fernandes opposes vigilantism. He condemns a new group of young men who use martial arts to beat up street children and suspected criminals. ``They are bordering on being a gang,'' he says, ``but [they] call themselves pro-police. In Copacabana, we hope to produce a shock effect on the police in order to reduce corruption to a minimum.''
He points out that police and hotel owners are working closely with Viva Rio because they know lawlessness in Rio continues to hurt tourism. ``The hotels will put pressure on the police,'' Fernandes says.