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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.

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Moreover, many fear the plan is just another example of what Brazilians call fogo de palha, or kind-ling fire. Many such campaigns have been started by newly elected officials, causing both heat and light. But once the fire dies down, authorities lose interest and things return to normal.

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"I've been doing this job 21 years and I've seen them do this before," says Marcelo de Oliveira, a municipal parking attendant who is horrified to see the city hauling away what he says are legitimately parked cars. "Nothing is going to change. Don't they have more important things to do than tow cars?"

Brenda Bond, assistant professor at Suffolk University in Boston, Mass., recently coauthored a study in Lowell, Mass., that found that crime is linked to community conditions. She also says engaging the community is a necessary part of the strategy.

"We've seen [this approach] work elsewhere," says Dr. Bond. "The challenge is, can you engage others outside the police agency in your effort. I think if there is an ability to engage folks, and everybody has a part in it ... you're more likely to see a positive impact. So the police alone cannot do it."

'Broken windows' approach

But Martin Floss, director of the Institute for Law and Justice at Hilbert College in New York, says the "broken window" approach, the focus on petty crimes, is not a panacea.

"It's not completely responsible for crime one way or the other, but it certainly helps whenever you can get people paying attention to their surroundings and working together," he says. "And if literally fixing a broken window helps facilitate that, then I guess you could see positive gains."

Neither Paes, nor the man in charge of the clean up, Rodrigo Bethlem, responded to numerous interview requests. But Mr Bethlem claims the high-profile initiatives are evidence things will be different this time around.

"They are strong and emblematic actions," he told the newsmagazine Veja, referring to the initial crackdown. They show "we will not practice ostrich politics."

No one argues Rio was in need of a shake up. The stunning bayside city remains the heart and soul of Brazil, with a glamorous image of beaches, samba, and soccer. But the city of seven million has struggled to find its place since the capital was moved to Brasilia.

One of the biggest issues has been the lack of government investment in infrastructure. The city saw almost no major public works programs for decades until it won the right to host the 2006 Pan American Games.

But although the games were a sporting success, authorities added no new roads, rail links, or public transport, missing a huge opportunity to modernize.

Other public money has gone into questionable projects such as the repeated renovations of the Maracana soccer stadium and the construction of Music City, which opened in December, six months late and six times over budget.

And the city's notorious favelas have grown and now number almost 1,000.

Many Cariocas were doubtful that Paes was the man to lead a revolution. He has no consistent ideology – he has represented five political parties in his 16-year career in politics – and he only squeaked into office after a runoff.

But he has good relations with both the state governor and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, meaning there is a cohesion to the programs and federal funding is more likely. The consistency of his strategy to date has surprised many. More and more doubters are being won over.

Meanwhile, officer Barbosa is all for the campaign and keeps taking the abuse. He says it might just be worth it.

"What we are doing is new," he says, as he calms one irate driver in Copacabana. "It is our duty."

Kristen Chick contributed from Boston.