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.

AFP/getty images/newscom
A TEAM EFFORT: Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes (left), with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (center) and Rio's governor, Sergio Cabral.
Sergio Moraes/Reuters
Cleaning up: Vidigal is one of almost 1,000 slums in Rio de Janeiro. Mayor Eduardo Paes hopes to reduce lawlessness by focusing on small crimes.

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

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.

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.

"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.

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