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Rio hopes small fixes will yield big drop in crime rate

The new mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has begun a zero-tolerance policy aimed at resuscitating one of the world's most crime-ridden cities.

By Andrew DownieCorrespondent / March 20, 2009

A TEAM EFFORT: Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes (left), with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (center) and Rio's governor, Sergio Cabral.

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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Checking car registrations in Rio de Janeiro is a thankless task.

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So far this morning, transit official Roberto Barbosa has been verbally abused by drivers and chewed out by pedestrians. An entire busload of commuters screamed invectives as they rode past.

Mr. Barbosa, his colleagues, and hundreds of other city and state officials are the sharp ends of a new push to transform a city famous for its "anything goes" outlook into a metropolis where laws have meaning again.

"We Cariocas are famous and proud of our informality, but it had become illegality, too," Zuenir Ventura, a popular columnist and author, says of Rio's decline into one of the world's most crime-ridden cities. "There was no respect for public places, no respect for noise levels, no respect for traffic laws, no respect for rules of any kind."

"It's going to be difficult to change because you have to change the whole culture. It takes time but you have to start somewhere and we're starting now."

The new crackdown is orchestrated by Eduardo Paes, Rio's new mayor. Mr. Paes, who took office on Jan. 1, is embracing the task of resuscitating a city that has been falling into disrepair ever since it was stripped of its capital status in 1960.

Rio, according to most observers here, lost its way as authorities turned a blind eye to lawlessness. Bit by bit the city became a place where anything goes, from street prostitution in tourist areas to drug trafficking in favelas, or slums, to the almost universal flouting of traffic laws.

A page from Giuliani's playbook

Paes aims to change that with a wide-ranging zero-tolerance strategy. Like Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City who employed the "broken window" theory of urban crime fighting to clean up the city, Paes says that petty crime and urban neglect created a downward spiral. By addressing the small, but most evident, crimes, attitudes shift and crime rates can drop. Significantly, Paes is working closely with state and federal authorities to clean up the city.

Experts say that community involvement is key to success in such strategies.

Joseph Ryan, professor and chair of criminal justice at Pace University in New York, helped develop the New York City Police Department's community policing program in 1984. Focusing on combating smaller crimes and community involvement can make a radical difference in crime-ridden neighborhoods, he says.

"If you get people involved, you can turn around the community," he says. "I absolutely believe that when the neighborhood's going downhill and no one cares about it, it sends a loud message that people can get away with whatever they want. No one is watching it, no one cares about the neighborhood."

Almost every day, city officials in Rio fan out and detain unlicensed vendors on beaches, tow off vehicles lacking the proper registrations, and remove street children and homeless adults from main thoroughfares.

Illegally constructed buildings are being bulldozed and unlicensed billboards have been torn down. Hundreds of tons of pirated merchandise has been seized.

The scale of the operation to date means that few Cariocas remain untouched – and few residents are without an opinion as to whether the operations are an effective course of action.

"I think it's great," says Carlos Henique Costa, a motorcyclist who was pulled over and could not provide his driver's license or papers. "I mean look, there's no discrimination, they stop everyone from a motorcycle to a Mercedes. How often do you see that?"

Most Cariocas interviewed agree that the city has been neglected for too long and they appear to back Paes' overall aims. But some small businessmen hit by the crackdown fought pitched battles in January with police who attempted to tow away their vehicles. And Barbosa and his colleagues say they are often verbally abused.

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