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Pre-Olympic Games

Rio de Janeiro's perennial problems with crime.

11:00 PM, Nov 2, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Rio de Janeiro

The 27 October edition O Globo, Rio's largest daily newspaper, featured an editorial cartoon on the front page instead being buried further back in the op-ed section. This is a bit unusual, even though it was placed below the fold, but its up-front placement underscores the concern of most of the population and numerous city officials. The message is that before the ground has even been broken for the first venue for the games several very public and violent incidents of crime that have occurred--just in the three short weeks since it was announced that the city was awarded the winning bid for the 2016 Olympic games--are now giving Rio a bad image.

The cartoon was fairly simple and to the point. It showed a white background covered with the five, multi-coloured Olympic rings--not unlike the many placards that were placed all over the city in the weeks leading up to the final award announcement. The only difference between this editorial cartoon version of the placard and those placed all over Rio is that this one featured numerous bullet holes and the caption "The Pre-Olympic Games."

The cartoon was largely in reference to the shootout on 17 October in the Morro dos Macacos (Monkey Hill) favela in the northern part of the city that resulted in the sunrise downing of a police helicopter. Subsequent firefights between the drug gangs and police units left dozens dead in the following days.

One photograph carried by almost all Brazilian and international newspapers showed the Rio Polícia Militar (PME) transporting the body of one of the dead drug gang foot soldiers down from the favela in a stolen supermarket shopping trolley. This incident was also lampooned in O Globo, with another cartoon showing a body inside of a shopping cart and the caption "a Carioca's (a Portuguese slang word that means 'a citizen of Rio') basket."

But the problem that Rio is now having is that the crime is not limited to the sprawling "have-not" favelas that are more different from the "haves" part of the city as East Berlin was from its western half. Like that famous line from Robin Williams in the film "Good Morning Vietnam" after his character narrowly escapes being blown up by a bomb planted in a local popular Saigan bar: "you wanna know the assumption is perfectly safe around here? Well, it's not. The fighting's not in the hills, it's downtown. It's a couple of f--ing blocks from here!"

Downtown, or the area in Rio known as Centro, is exactly where Evandro Jo o Silva, the leader of one of Rio's more popular community outreach programs, called AfroReggae, was murdered the previous weekend. The organization has had a good track record of persuading youth in the favelas to give up drugs in favor of music and is well-respected. Silva was shot and robbed at about 0130 in the morning, which is not a good time to be on the streets in this city, but for someone who works everyday in some of the most dangerous parts of the city the environs of the downtown business district probably do not seem so threatening.

The disgraceful details of Silva's murder probably would have gone unnoticed except that it happened on a street fitted with several surveillance cameras, including the security video monitor at the ATM machine where his attackers believed he had just withdrawn money. Reviewing all of the footage from these cameras reveals that Silva was still alive after he was shot, but the two men who attacked him proceeded to steal his wallet, his one-and-a-half year old athletic shoes and a cheap jacket he had purchased a year ago from Lojas Americanas, a chain of stores that is Brazil's answer to Wal-Mart in the U.S.

It was strange enough that his attackers decided to steal personal clothing and footwear that was worth nothing, but what happened next is even worse. Within 30 seconds of Silva being shot the two thieves were stopped by a police car. Not only did these officers fail to call for an ambulance or do anything else to assist Silva (who was still alive at this point) they instead proceeded to relieve the thieves of the stolen shoes and jacket and whatever money had been taken off Silva.

What adds to the mystery, say Rio locals, is that the police then did not beat up or otherwise humiliate the two attackers as they usually do, but just let them go on their way--seeming oblivious to the fact that the two had just committed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. "This has many believing that the two thieves were somehow connected to the police, which is why they were let go without being beaten," said one Rio-based expat. Arrests have been made in the case but details are still sketchy.