Trigger-happy: Rio’s security forces show their true colours ahead of Olympics
The taxi from Rio’s international airport skirts around the edge of a sprawling favela, where rust-coloured breeze block houses line narrow alleyways, blue plastic water tanks perch on roofs and laundry dances in the breeze under corrugated iron sheets to protect it from the frequent downpours that turn the city’s streets into fast flowing rivers. Children dart in and out of buildings, while vultures scavenge in rubbish piled up along the banks of a river. On the car radio, a DJ plays a selection of 80s ballads. The piano intro to Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colours” fills the stale-smoke scented air. Rounding a corner, high on a distant hill, Cristo Redentor comes into view - the iconic statue of Jesus Christ stretching out his arms over the city.
In 100 days’ time, Rio will become the first South American city to host the greatest show on earth - an Olympic Games with 10,000 athletes participating in 28 sports and costing billions of dollars. It’s an event that claims to promote peace, yet its arrival in this city is on course to do the exact opposite. Thousands of visitors will make the journey from the airport into the city - known as the Cidade Maravilhosa for its postcard-ready beaches and backdrop of lush mountains - but few will hear about life in many of Rio’s 600 favelas while the world’s top athletes run, jump, and swim their way to glory.
Brazil has, in absolute numbers, the highest number of homicides in the world. In 2014 – the year the country hosted the World Cup – 60,000 people were murdered. Shockingly, thousands of those killings were carried out by the very people meant to protect the population. Police in the state of Rio alone killed 580 people that year, a 40 per cent increase on the previous 12 months. In 2015 the number was even higher – 645. Of those, 307 occurred in the city itself, representing nearly 20% of the total number of homicides there. The majority of the victims are young, black men who live in favelas and other poor communities.
As the Olympics security operation gets underway, without proper safeguards the number of killings by police could rise still further. Meanwhile, the mass deployment out on the streets of both civil and military police, and even the army, will be for many Brazilians a chilling reminder of the country's dark days of dictatorship.
Maré, the complex of favelas near Rio’s airport, at first glance could be a poor neighbourhood in any Latin American city. Ramshackle buildings clamour for space among street stalls selling bananas, papayas, eggs and knock-off football shirts. Overhead cables criss-cross the street, precariously connecting homes with the nearest overloaded electricity supply. Teenagers roll by on bikes, lorries squeeze down the pot-holed roads with deliveries for grocery stores and cafes, and dance music blares through an open window.
But closer inspection reveals something that makes this place terrifyingly different. On almost every street corner of this vast favela - home to 140,000 people - is a teenage boy sitting on a plastic chair, a shiny revolver in his hand or a machine gun across his lap, ‘protecting’ his gang’s patch. Adolescents toting guns is such an everyday sight that locals rarely cast a second glance. The atmosphere can be tense. All too often, the staccato rhythm of gunfire provides a deadly soundtrack to life here.
On almost every street corner of this vast favela - home to 140,000 people - is a teenage boy sitting on a plastic chair, a shiny revolver in his hand or a machine gun across his lap, ‘protecting’ his gang’s patch.
Shortly before the World Cup, the Brazilian military moved into Maré, parking armoured vehicles on the cramped, uneven streets and installing nearly 3000 soldiers on checkpoints and patrols, in the name of security. The World Cup lasted a month, yet they stayed for over a year. Residents found themselves caught between the violence of drugs gangs and the aggression of the security forces. The tanks withdrew late last year, but with the Olympics just months away, many predict they’ll soon return.
Vitor Santiago, 30, has lived in Maré all his life, and when on a sweltering afternoon in February last year he promised his three-year-old daughter Beatriz he’d take her to the beach the next day, he had every intention of keeping his word. He’d just been made redundant so had time and money from his payoff on his hands, and in the height of summer in Rio de Janeiro with carnival season in full swing, spending the day at the beach is what Cariocas, as the locals are known, most like to do. Separated from Beatriz’ mother, Vitor tried to spend as much time with his daughter as he could.
“Every Monday and Wednesday I used to go and see her after work,” he says. “And on Fridays I’d go and pick her up and bring her here [the house he lives in with his parents] for the weekend. We were always going around doing things together.”
First though, he had an important engagement. His team, Flamengo, was playing that night and he had arranged to watch the game with some friends in a bar near his house. He said goodbye to his mum, Irone, kissed Beatriz goodnight, and went out to meet his mates.
Things were calm enough on the streets of Maré, and after the final whistle Vitor’s group drove to a bar in a neighbourhood nearby. Heading back home in the early hours, they were in high spirits, it was Carnival, and they’d had a good night out. But as they approached Maré, they noticed the streets were full of people and there were soldiers everywhere. The car was waved down by a man in army uniform.
Vitor and his friends pulled over and got out of the car. The soldiers searched the group and checked over the vehicle. They were given the all clear, and went on their way. But as they came round a corner they spotted another army checkpoint up ahead. They slowed down and without warning the soldiers suddenly opened fire. Vitor tried to duck as a hail of bullets hit the car, but felt a shock of pain as a bullet that sliced through the rear door of the car entered the side of his torso, cracking one of his ribs, piercing his lung, and striking his spine.
“If the bullet had entered any higher, I would have ended up paralyzed from the neck down. I was in the car and all I remember is the sound of windows smashing and not knowing what was going on...there was a lot of blood.”
“At that moment I lost all sensation below my waist, I couldn’t feel my legs,” he said. “If the bullet had entered any higher, I would have ended up paralyzed from the neck down. I was in the car and all I remember is the sound of windows smashing and not knowing what was going on. I didn’t know where I was injured, if the bullet had come from behind or another angle….there was a lot of blood.”
Outside the car there was a “tremendous noise” of people shouting and screaming. Vitor was drifting in and out of consciousness, and then he fell into a coma.
A week later when he woke up, Vitor learnt that he’d only just made it. The doctors had given him a 7% chance of survival. He discovered that a second bullet had entered his left thigh, smashed the bone, and passed through into his right leg where it pierced an artery. To save his life, the doctors had to amputate. And because of the first bullet that hit his spine, he learned that he would probably never regain sensation in his lower body.
Irone says that despite everything, Vitor is perhaps one of the lucky ones. She has recently met Terezinha de Jesus, whose son was shot by police one afternoon on April last year. Ten-year-old Eduardo had been sitting on his doorstep playing with his mobile phone, when a police patrol passed by and an officer shot him in the head. He was killed instantly. These attacks are so frequent that they barely make the news in Rio.
Our lives have changed completely, but at least Vitor is still alive.”
“Our lives have changed completely,” Irone said, “but at least Vitor is still alive.”
Vitor spent three months in hospital. For over a year now he has been bed-bound in a small, first floor, windowless bedroom at home. The steep, narrow staircase to the front door makes it impossible to get a wheelchair up and down.
“I need an adapted house,” he says. “I just want to be able to do the same things as everyone else. I can’t even go to the kitchen to cook, or open the fridge to see what’s there. What happened, happened - I can’t go back in time and get my leg back. But technology is advancing and it might soon be possible to regain feeling and even be able to walk.”
Until that happens, someone else will be taking his daughter to the beach. Meanwhile, there has been no investigation into the shooting, no one has been brought to justice, sending a chilling message that this kind of violence by security forces is acceptable, and leaving those responsible free to do it again.
The Olympics are coming, and behind the glitz, glamour and glory, this is what’s happening. Without immediate action from the authorities to prevent such shootings by the security forces, there will be more Vitors, more Eduardos, and the Games’ organizers could find their event overshadowed by abuse of the most fundamental human right of them all – the right to life.
Back in the taxi from the airport, the true colours of the target of Cyndi Lauper’s affections are ‘shining through…beautiful like a rainbow’. If only the same could be said for Rio, Brazil’s Marvellous City.