Rio gang-rape spotlights problem faced by developing-world cities

The gang-rape ordeal the American woman and her companion endured puts a focus on safety issues as Rio leaders prepare to host both the World Cup and Summer Olympics.

Felipe Dana/AP
A public transport van picks up passengers along Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. The gang-rape ordeal the American woman and her companion endured reportedly in Brazil puts a focus on a gorgeous but violence-plagued city, as Rio leaders prepare to host both the World Cup and Summer Olympics.

The brutal gang-rape in a Rio de Janeiro transit van of a young American woman reportedly in Brazil to learn Portuguese raises troubling questions for a gorgeous but violence-plagued city trying to remake its image before it takes the world stage next year.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s postcard-perfect metropolis of famed beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema, is set to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.

But the terrifying six-hour long ordeal the woman and a male companion endured Saturday night on one of Rio’s thousands of poorly regulated transit minivans presents a nightmare for city leaders.

Reminiscent of a similarly horrific attack and gang-rape on a bus in Delhi last December, the Rio attack casts a spotlight on the problem in many developing-world cities of loosely regulated independent transportation options that can expose local riders – and unwitting tourists – to violence, organized crime, and corruption.

And as growing numbers of American college students and other first-world travelers expand their overseas horizons beyond the Western capitals like Paris and London that they tended to stick to in the past, more of them are encountering the same safety risks that local populations have faced for decades.

The Saturday night attack began when the American woman and her companion boarded a transport van in Rio’s touristy and upscale Copacabana district. The van’s drivers first beat both the woman and the man, then handcuffed the man and proceeded to take turns raping the woman. The drivers reportedly stopped occasionally to purchase gasoline and alcohol and to withdraw cash at ATMs using the victims’ cards, before releasing the victims early in the morning.

Rio police have arrested two suspects in the case, and are said to be searching for a third.

The incident draws international attention to Rio’s violence and to its hodge-podge of transit systems – both of which the city has been moving to address.

With one eye on the approaching World Cup and Olympics, Rio has been working to rein in a vast informal system of unregulated or loosely regulated transit vans, according to the World Bank.

But mirroring other major cities in Latin America and other developing regions, Rio still has hundreds of informal transport operators, in some cases serving out-of-the-way or poorer neighborhoods that official transit systems don’t reach.

Nor is foregoing “public” transit for a taxi always a sure bet for avoiding violence. This reporter learned quickly, as a correspondent in Mexico City in the 1990s, that taxis had a justly earned reputation for being moving robbery and kidnapping venues.

One foreign correspondent in Mexico City during those years suffered a Rio-type incident, when the taxi he and his girlfriend were returning home in took an unrequested detour down a dark side street where an ambush ensued. The journalist was beat up while his girlfriend was raped. Both subsequently left Mexico.          

Travel experts report that travel to India – particularly by women – is down since the December bus rape in Delhi and a string of other high-profile cases of violence involving tourists. 

Rio’s leaders and Brazilian officials will no doubt have that experience in mind as they pursue preparations for their moments on the international stage – now under the cloud of the Rio minivan attack.

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