When two foreigners reported on early Saturday morning that they had been held hostage for nearly six hours in a van the night before – while the drivers gang-raped the young American woman and beat her French male companion with an iron bar – the Tourist Police rushed into action.
Using transaction records from their stolen credit cards and security footage from a gas station camera, the police quickly put together a list of suspects, two of whom were arrested by the end of the day. Their rapid response was widely praised in Brazil and abroad.
But after a local woman came forward to say she too had reported to police her attack and rape by the same men – the week before – observers began questioning the seeming bias in investigations into two nearly identical cases.
Rio de Janeiro is in a rush to revamp its image as a crime-ridden city ahead of a series of international mega-events, including the World Youth Day visit by the pope this July, the World Cup next year, and the 2016 Summer Olympics. The city has seen many progressive initiatives, one of the most noticeable being the installation of “Pacifying Police Units” – police trained in human rights and conflict mediation – in favelas (squatter settlements) once controlled by drug traffickers.
“I think it is precisely due to the touristic aspect [of the foreigner’s rape case] that the police mobilized the investigation and that it was successful so quickly,” says Barbara Soares, a sociologist at the Rio de Janeiro university Cândido Mendes and previously the Rio de Janeiro state undersecretary for women’s security.
Ms. Soares says Brazil has made great strides in both legislation and societal attitudes toward victims of rape since the time she was in the state agency a decade ago. Back then, she says, police attendants would ask a woman reporting sexual violence if the aggressor was her boyfriend to cast doubt on her claim, and gynecological equipment at the hospital to inspect and treat rape victims was rusty.
But the response to the young Brazilian alleged rape victim still shows the holes in law enforcement’s response. She reported the rape a week before the foreigners to a police unit specialized in crimes against women. After she came forward to a local television crew to give an interview about her experience and say she recognized her rapists as the suspects in the case of the foreign couple, the head of Rio’s civil police, Martha Rocha, fired the police chief and forensic technician – both women – responsible in the Brazilian’s case, accusing them of negligence.
Ms. Rocha said in a statement that she “was sorry about the services delivered [to the Brazilian victim] and laments that the management of the two organs involved [in her investigation] were under the responsibility of women, precisely those who should be most sensitive to episodes like this.”
Mauricio Santoro, a human rights researcher with the Brazilian branch of Amnesty International, says he was “distressed” by how much Brazilian media coverage of the foreign couple’s ordeal has focused on the impact it has on the city’s image and tourism. Rio may be taking cues from the aftermath of a recent and similar incident in India. After the high-profile gang rape on a bus there, followed by a handful of similar attacks, the number of female tourists has declined in India by 35 percent, with tourism overall dropping by 25 percent over the past three months, according to a survey the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India.
“Of course it will have an economic effect for tourism and the city, but the most serious concern should be the rights of women in the city," says Mr. Santoro. "Whether they are foreign or are Brazilian is secondary.” Santoro says he hopes Brazilians mobilize against sexual violence in the same way Indian protesters did, but says he had yet to see signs of that.
The state of Rio de Janeiro, which had a population of 16 million in the 2010 census, registers 16 cases of rape a day, says Santoro, which is in part due to a greater reporting and a wider definition of rape.
The recent case of a star soccer goalkeeper found guilty of murdering his ex-girlfriend (with an ex-policeman servicing as an accomplice) garnered wide media attention and showed a positive changing tide of attitudes toward gender violence, Santoro adds.
“They were very important cases with good decisions and harsh sentences. I think the mindsets [are] changing and the legislation is changing, but this is not enough. We still have a problem of police negligence and police not investigating enough,” he says.