Rash of Rio violence rattles even hardened residents in Brazil's World Cup host city

Torching of cars and buses raise concerns over policing methods as Rio de Janeiro prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

Silvia Izquierdo/AP
Police officers stand at a street of the Vila Cruzeiro slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Nov. 24. Heavily armed men halted buses and cars, robbed their passengers and set the vehicles ablaze Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro, continuing a wave of violence that has rattled rich and poor alike in a city Brazil hopes to make a showplace for the 2016 Olympics.

Nine cars, five buses, and a van set on fire across the city – just this morning. Numerous other acts of arson across roadways since Sunday, when an apparently coordinated series of fires were set off and homemade bombs were set around Rio de Janeiro (see a map here). In many cases, armed bandits have forced motorists from their vehicles to set them ablaze.

The street I used to live on in Copacabana is one that awoke to a car bombing today in Brazil's second-largest city.

An American friend asked me last night: “But isn’t this normal for Rio?”

No matter how much the desperately violent 2002 film "City of God" has colored foreigners' image of this city, the truth is that many parts have been tranquil for the past couple of years, giving residents a sense of security that random acts of violence are now rattling. Police today raided shantytowns and reportedly killed 10 suspected criminals.

Rio authorities say the violence is in reaction to a two-year-old policing project, known as the "pacification" program, to root out organized drug-fueled crime by occupying favelas (or shanty towns). The program involves setting up heavy policing units to reclaim slums from gangs, and authorities say it has "pacified" 13 favelas since its inception.

To supporters it has been a one-of-a-kind success. For skeptics it is smoke and mirrors. The answer generally depends on where you live.

In the midst of this recent flare of violence, Rio authorities have defended the heavy policing program. Rio state Governor Sergio Cabral said on the radio this morning: “This action in the metropolitan region is an act of hopelessness of those who see that the policies will in its course weaken the control of the trafficking. … We’re going to continue carrying out this policy.”

Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said on the radio yesterday that his administration viewed these acts not as petty crime but anti-government actions: “If he [the criminal] wanted to gain money with this he would take the car, not burn it. … These are acts of terrorism.”

There is little to suggest, as of now, that the policies will change course. During her campaign, now President-elect Dilma Rousseff called Rio’s policing model important and effective. Her comment came right after a mass attack shocked Rio in late August, when gunmen with grenades and automatic weapons took 35 hostages in one of Rio de Janeiro’s most upscale hotels.

But Rio's record of heavy-handed policing has critics. "The government of Rio needs to find a way to contain the violent gangs carrying out these attacks. Unfortunately, the local police have a very poor record of using excessive force in place of effective policing techniques," Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch said in a statement today.

Human Rights Watch released a report last year saying that police in Rio and São Paulo have killed at least 11,000 people since 2003 in extrajudicial killings that have often later been covered up.

The wave of violence is also adding to critics' arguments that Rio – as it preens itself for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics – is more preoccupied with protecting its core tourist areas and posh beachfront than the poor areas that bear the brunt of criminal activity. Many of the favelas that have so far received police “pacification” units are the ones that ring the wealthy South Zone, driving criminals to the already beleaguered north of the city.

So, to answer my friend’s question, this citywide and coordinated violence is not normal. As a Brazilian told me when he cancelled our dinner plans tonight, right near my small and tranquil neighborhood: “I've been reading some rumors about some planned attacks in parts of the city, and I think it's best not to go out. I'll be working from home today.”

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