Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Samba and Security in Rio de Janeiro

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Cariocas (Rio locals) and tourists are back to reality now that Brazil’s five-day Carnival has wrapped up for the year. And what a Carnival. The Salguiero Samba School beat out a fierce rival to win the two-day Schools Parade competition—its first title in 16 years. Among the 80,000 spectators packed into the Sambadrome stadium, President Lula da Silva, describing the parade as “marvelous,” could be seen in a white shirt and Panama hat enjoying the festivities until 5:00 a.m.

Tudo bem? Not quite. Beyond the masks and costumes, another issue continues to creep into the headlines coming out of Rio: crime. A total of 9,800 police were deployed for Carnival but armed assailants still managed to grab attention with brazen attacks on two hotels, robbing tourists of IPods, money and cameras. But as he must, the head of the tourist police, Fernando Veloso remains confident: “One or two cases won’t ruin Rio’s image. There is always a problem of some sort. But every big city has problems.” In fact, things have gotten better. In Rio de Janeiro state, the murder rate has declined from a high of 64 per 100,000 people in the mid-1990s to 39 per 100,000 people in 2007.

And criminals now have a new nemesis: Eduardo Paes, the 39-year-old Rio mayor who took office on January 1. During the mayoral campaign, Paes called for a “shock of urban order” campaign—a strategy modeled after the highly regarded Broken Windows theory first tested in the New York City subways in the early 1990s. The idea behind Broken Windows is that petty crimes lead to more egregious criminal acts; so by deterring graffiti and subway fare evasion, for example, major crime will also be reduced. Paes’ first targets have been illegal street vendors, generating anxiety among those who rely on Rio’s informal economy for their livelihood.

Rio’s other new crime-fighting tactic is community policing. In Rio’s slums this increasingly means that the police do not just come and fight, but they then stay and embed themselves in the community and get to know residents. One success story is Santa Marta slum where police are now in control and 120 officers live among community members. Combined with public works projects—the construction of a new soccer field in Santa Marta’s case—residents get a first-hand glimpse of how the state can help improve their livelihoods.

Rio Governor Sérgio Cabral sums up the strategy: “The state is going back to occupy territories from which it was absent, both in terms of public security and in terms of social investment.” Last month, special forces celebrated taking back control of the infamous City of God slum.

With Carnival revelers now headed back to work, Cábral and Paes have much at stake as they continue working to clean-up Rio. International observers will be watching, especially as Brazil and the cidade maravilhosa prepare to play host to the 2014 World Cup—its first time in 64 years. Another crucial test will come much sooner. In October, the International Olympic Committee will decide if Rio is to host the 2016 Summer Games. But Olympic prestige will come only by convincing officials that the city is safe. And that is a tall marching order.


Jason Marczak is deputy director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. He previously served as senior editor of Americas Quarterly and director of policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

Tags: Brazil, Lula, Security
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