Going back in time: The absent legacy of Rio’s Olympic games

Rio’s Olympic Games brought promises of social welfare improvement and structural change, but four years later a search for any positive impact in the city’s favelas proves elusive. In 2008, studies showed that 96.3% of the territory encompassing Rio’s favelas was beyond state control. The Government’s heavy-handed response to endemic drug-trafficking and violence in Rio’s slums was clearly failing (making Bolsonaro’s appointment all the more anguishing). Stray bullets claimed innocent lives as street shoot-outs erupted between gang-members and the oppressive police task force known as BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais). However, it was the international limelight of a football world cup in 2014 and an Olympic games in 2016 that prompted the government’s “pacification” policy to clean up favela crime.

A marriage of community policing via the UPP, and incisive military raids, heralded initially encouraging results. From as early as 2010, a study by the Instituto Brasileiro de Pequisa Social found that 64% of the favela Cidade de Deus felt personal security had improved significantly since the UPP occupation. After favelas were occupied, UPP officers placed emphasis on connecting with the residents of Rio’s favelas, conducting interviews to discover which social services were most needed. This was ultimately not their priority though, with a homicide-by-gun rate of 240 per 100,000 the state’s most pressing concern.

Urbanization reforms under the aegis of the PAC (Growth Acceleration Program) also sought to rejuvenate the living conditions of the favelas. 3.9 billion reais were assigned to Rio de Janeiro in the program’s first phase, but the spatial distribution of this resource within the city seemed biased. The government privileged touristic sites of the elite South Zone, best typified by the pedestrian overpass connecting Rocinha to a new and expensive sports centre designed for the favela’s community. The importance of this project seemed underpinned by the need to present Rio’s most visible favelas as part of the city’s scenery.

Equally important was highlighting a literal integration between favela and the “formal” city. This hyperconsciousness led to the construction of cable cars across the city’s favelas, in a blunt effort to reassure the world of state-funding in Rio’s poorest areas. In the case of Complexo do Alemao, 210 million reais were invested in a transportation line that stopped functioning one month after the Olympics finished. Even more shockingly, 2000 residents were moved from their homes to accommodate the new gimmick. Its route even bypassed several key residential areas, illustrating how far detached communities were from this program of urban renewal.

This uneven dichotomy between Rio’s core and peripheral favelas was sharpened through the police’s pacification program. In 2011, large numbers of traffickers fled to districts like Complexo do Alemao in the wake of pacification raids. Later, they would base themselves in larger metropolitan areas of Rio such as Niteroi and Marica. While the number of violent deaths in the state of Rio de Janeiro fell by 23.5%, there was a simultaneous 46% increase in these incidents in Niteroi and Marica. That the state simply swept Rio’s problems under the carpet is self-evident.

Unsurprisingly, any semblance of trust between favela residents and police quickly eroded. This process was accelerated rapidly in 2013, with Brazil’s World Cup just around the corner, when a 42 year old construction worker from Rocinha called Amarildo was murdered by police in cold blood. He had no ties to gangs, and his body was never discovered. For Rio’s citizens, this arbitrary act of violence immediately conjured up images of the GPAE -Special Areas Policing Group, a task force launched to tackle the favelas in the Ipanema and Copacabana areas in September 2000.

Initially the GPAE oversaw a vast reduction in gang-related violence, and stray bullets grew incredibly rare. This success brought about widespread and positive attention in the media, much like the initial progress made by the UPP. However, a failure to deliver promised social projects led to the relationship between police and community disintegrating. The rupture was exacerbated by instances of bloody massacre by the police in 2004, and even reports of torture. Quick trials led to police impunity but the GPAE came to an abrupt halt, ultimately doing more damage than good.

Since Rio’s Olympics, only 15 of the original 27 venues have hosted any event since the Games finished. The rest attract dust, their abandoned frames acting as a constant reminder of what could have been. Rio’s Olympic legacy exists as reminder to the dangers of short-term investment without a long-term plan. As so often the case in contemporary Brazil, it is the poorest and most vulnerable that suffer the most for this mistake.

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