Sanctioned Lies About Rio Safety Put Residents At Risk
By Ann Deslandes
When I arrive to the cable car station at Brazil’s second largest favela, the line is closed. My phone beeps — it’s Mariluce Maria Souza, a local artist and community leader, who I had planned to meet for an interview about amplified security in Alemão, due to the Olympics. The cable car service has stopped temporarily, she says; she was not at her usual post next to Palmeiras, the final station on the line, and so wouldn’t be on time to meet me.
The service was suspended due to gunshots having been fired in the neighborhood — a common enough occurrence according to the other people waiting — and the operators were waiting for them to stop. We agreed I should head to her station anyway; perhaps I could still meet her when she finally got there.
I wait for the line to open again, and hop onto a cable car, taking a seat between an elderly woman reading a soap-y magazine and a man carrying two covered cages, the occasional chirp betraying the presence of little birds inside. I text Wilson, the friend I am supposed to be meeting afterwards, and say I might be late, as the interview has been delayed by gunshots.
A carioca — a Rio native — from another favela, Wilson thinks this is hilarious and teases me about getting shot (as he has also teased me about catching Zika). Like many locals during my six-week freelancing stint in Rio leading up to the 2016 Summer Games, he thinks visitors like me pay the price of our privileged financial and racial position with paranoia.
The cable car soars over the complexo — encompassing churches, roads, cars, people, animals, hundreds of family homes, backyards, swimming pools, buildings in progress, and laundry lines — with the edge of Rio’s North Zone on the horizon. I alight at Palmeiras and am greeted almost immediately by Cléber Araujo (Mariluce’s husband) at the stall where they sell paintings forged by Mariluce and the children who attend Mariluce’s art program, FavelArte. Cléber is going to be my interviewee in Mariluce’s absence, so we can get started straight away.
A fiercely sanguine man who is clearly loved by his community as a friend and leader, Cléber laughs heartily when I tell him my questions are about security — “We don’t have any!”
We settle in for our chat at a table strewn with painting materials, looking out over the cable car line, and I explain that I’m curious about what it’s like to be on the “other side” of security in Rio in the time of the 2016 Games, which have been precipitated by relentless anxiety for the safety of athletes and tourists in one of the so-called “world’s most dangerous cities,” prompting extraordinary security measures ranging from the armed occupation of Rio’s streets by various militarized police forces to the Australian Olympic authority’s ban on their athletes visiting favelas due to security concerns.
How safe are favela residents feeling in all of this, while their homes are considered places that visitors need security from?
The city authorities’ discourse on security was dramatically ramped up when the mega-events of the past few years were announced, Cléber says — 2013 World Day of Youth, the 2014 World Cup, and the Olympics spectacle occurring right now.
“As soon as the city was to be prepared to receive thousands of international guests, favelas were immediately targeted. Favelas were occupied by military police [the UPP, the Police Pacification Unit intended to quell violence and drug traffic in favelas across Rio] and treated like a cancer on the city.”
Scapegoating favelas as the source of Rio’s security problems was easy. These informal settlements or neighborhoods, built by the residents themselves, have been heavily stigmatized by urban elites across their century-long history, enforcing the idea that favelas are illegal and thus their residents, inherently criminal. And, as Cléber notes with palpable frustration, Brazil’s mainstream media (principally, the Globo Network, which claims to reach 99.50% of potential viewers, “practically the entire Brazilian population”) has been only too happy to take a certain “idea of the favela” — as poor, violent, ugly, and otherwise dysfunctional — and “transmit it live” across the world. This notion has been taken up by a global media for years, entities that have only recently begun to question these ideas. This false representation of favelas as sites of inherent danger fuels growing paranoia and justifies the constant fear-mongering by authorities from visiting Olympic teams in addition to travel warnings from Brazil’s own authorities.
As is increasingly documented in the international and English language media, the alleged securitization of Rio through the “pacification” of the favelas has tended to result in the opposite of security for favela residents themselves.
Favela residents across Rio have engaged in organized resistance against various actions that have threatened their community — from police violence including regular killings (mostly of young Black men), to wide-scale forced evictions to make way for Olympic projects (such as the destruction of Vila Autódromo, a generations-old favela community that was inconveniently located on the site of Olympic Park), to the desecration of hard-won cultural heritage for the Afro-Brazilian descendants of Brazil’s enormous slave trade in Quilombo de Camorim and its threatened erasure in Quilombo Pedra do Sal, to the gentrification of low-income housing (such as in Vidigal favela).
Catalytic Communities — a Rio de Janeiro-based community development NGO — works doggedly to undermine favela stigma. They recently ran a day-long social media campaign, #StopFavelaStigma, which aimed to counter the ubiquitous “dangerous-and-infested” narrative with stories and information that illustrated how vast and diverse favela life is in Rio, including high levels of social capital, community pride, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship.
Community leaders and journalists in favelas across Rio have found a growing profile for their denunciations of the government as various media — hailing from all over the globe in their coverage of the Olympics — have sought out a perspective on the mega-event from the city’s many favela residents. (After all, nearly 25% of the entire population — 12 million people — live in them.) These include Cléber and Mariluce, along with Maria da Penha, Natália Macena, and Sandra de Souza from Vila Autodromo; Bruno Rafael and Carla Siccos from Cidade de Deus; and Thaís Cavalcante and Gizele Martins from Complexo do Mare, and many others. All have vividly described the twisted nature of security in Rio since the mega-events came to town; for many favela residents, they explain, security has only become more precarious.
As Robert Muggah, head of research at a Rio-based security think tank, the Igarapé Institute, told the International Business Times:
“If you are young, unemployed male and black, and if you come from a low-income area or a favela, the Olympics are going to be very bad news for you. If you are white, middle class or wealthy, and you’re a foreigner, you’re probably going to be as safe as you are in a Northeastern city in the United States.”
In some cases, the authorities have attempted to demonstrate security by simply occluding favelas from view. Complexo do Maré is a favela complex located on the road leading out from the international airport, where athletes, journalists, and other Olympic VIPs got their first sights of the city when arriving for the Summer Games; the government has erected a wall between Maré and the road and emblazoned it with Rio2016 branding.
By now it’s clear to me that the anxiety attending the security of visitors to Rio is profoundly disproportionate to their present danger. Meanwhile, behind the wall that shields Maré from view, hundreds have been killed by police, as has been documented in The Guardian by community journalist Thaís Cavalcante.
As Gizele Martins wrote on Rioonwatch.org (Catalytic Communities’ news site) after another exhausting weekend listening to the crack of gunfire across the neighborhood:
“This peace they claim to have in the city is for whom and in whose name? Why are the favelas always massacred in the name of a mega-event? Why do we have to pay with our lives for an event put on for a rich minority of the population? Why, and to what end, must we hear shots since the dawn of Friday?”
In Complexo do Alemão, Cléber describes the moods of panic and grief that have been stirred by the increased presence of military police in the neighborhoods of favela residents in the name of the city’s security. He also urges me to note that systemic racism in Brazil — which is certainly evident in Rio — is the reason that young Black men from the favelas are most likely to be victims of police violence here.
It is deeply ironic that the billions spent on preparing Rio for a safe tourist experience — not to mention the deadly cost paid by so many favela residents — has not even resulted in greater security for visitors. Robberies and assaults remain common occurrences in the city, with several Olympic athletes and officials experiencing theft at gunpoint.
And then there’s the matter of the very morning of my interview in Alemão — where I of course paused before lining up to wait for the cable car and wondered whether I was indeed risking my safety in a place where gunshots were heard only minutes earlier. What, I ask Cléber, would you advise people visiting Rio about security — how can tourists keep themselves as safe as possible?
“Don’t listen to the government or the mainstream media,” he advises gravely. “Complexo do Alemão is safer than Copacabana — if you really want drugs and violence, go to Copacabana.” And indeed, the bulk of the violent robberies reported in the international media as cautionary tales have occurred in the sunny South Zone.
Visitors would also do well to consider the political context informing the safety of the 2016 Olympic city. Corruption is a problem at all levels of government in Brazil, and has fueled many of the disaster stories coming out of the country in the lead-up to the Games, such as the collapse of the Tim Maia bike path in April. (Not to mention the removal of democratically-elected President Dilma Roussef due to concerns she had violated fiscal laws; she was replaced by Michel Temer, who is implicated in even more instances of abusing political office for personal financial gain.)
After speaking with favela residents and international witnesses during my time in Rio, it is clear that government rhetoric about the danger of favelas makes a conveniently distracting narrative for the rampant corruption in the city-making industries of gas, petrol, and construction. When I asked Cléber what safety and security would look like if it existed for his community, he said immediately, “it would look like no corruption,” because then there might be enough money for schools and health care, and enough goodwill to consider what might truly stop the bullets. As it stands, public funds are either swallowed up by corruption or deployed in order to mask it.
The rhetoric that favelas are dangerous for foreigners has also exponentially exasperated economic insecurity for individual favela residents and their families. Cléber tells me that favelas like Complexo do Alemão have lost considerable business in the wake of these “warnings,” despite decades of overseas visitors taking tours through the neighborhood and buying local produce.
“I know so many who have gone out of business, who have had to close their restaurant or their bar,” Cléber says. Most infuriating, of course, is the complete inaccuracy of the premise for this slowing of tourist traffic, i.e. the danger to travelers. “In 30 years of tourism here and in Rocinha [a favela in Rio’s South Zone], I’ve never heard of a foreigner being robbed or assaulted. But now they’ve stopped coming.”
We finish our chat and I buy one of Mariluce’s artworks, a small canvas painted with an image of her neighborhood at dusk — colorful houses on the hillside are beginning to silhouette, crowned by sea birds and a cable car. It now sits on my desk as a testament to the many deceptive lines between safety and risk.
Rio’s many favela community leaders are telling us something of global importance in this so-called “age of terror”; when we talk about “dangerous places,” we need to consider the intricate matters at stake in “staying safe,” and whose safety we are really talking about.
If you go to Rio and are worried about your security, you’re better off listening to those who don’t have it.