Rio de Janeiro, lately, is like the plain-looking girl getting ready for the prom. Despite the makeup and hair styling, she is still a plain young woman underneath the attempts to turn herself into a starlet for the evening.
Rio is trying to put its best foot forward. Cleaning up the parts of the city where the wealthy tourists will be, the plain girl underneath, the barrios are forgotten. Drug dealers, prostitutes and criminals that normally roam freely throughout the Brazilian city, have been pushed into the shantytowns ringing the metropolis.
Women sway in the streets, seductively winking at men walking slowly by as if they were cattle barons examining the latest livestock at the auction. Kids dance in torn sandals. Music booms from the ghetto blasters stuck in many open windows. Young punks show off their pistols. Every so often, one brings out an assault rifle. This is not Pakistan. It is another block party in one of the lawless shanty-towns just on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, the forgotten part of Brazil. The shantytowns, always a rough area to visit, have been made worse by the missteps of the city and national governments.
Ever since 2008 when the “policia” started a “pacification” attempt, the police have roared into dozens of neighborhoods. Trying to squeeze out the gangs and leave the picture postcard Rio de Janeiro a little safer for tourists and people with pesos to spend, the police have only succeeded in strengthening the criminal resolve.
With hundreds of thousands of tourists descending on the Brazilian city for the World Cup, the city is no closer to being safe than before the pacification effort began. Any attempt by the government to say otherwise is a weak, fruitless effort to market the city. It is an ad campaign seen through by the people who live here 24/7.
The police have spent years focusing on shantytowns that are close to tourist hot spots. They have repeatedly raided the favelas that sit precariously on the hills that watch quietly over the events of Copacabana and Ipanema. Far from the beaches and the postcard scenery, drug gangs are still in control. Even during the day and at night, they spill into the bright lights, glitz and glamor.
Here, in Rio, the drug trade is thriving and carried out in the open. Teenagers, armed with pistols and assault rifles, stand guard at street corners and relay intel about the policia through radios and cellphones as housewives, construction workers and small children pass by.
A blue, plastic table with a corner broken and a leg missing sits precariously in a corner. Stacked with tiny baggies of marijuana, cocaine, crack and ether, the table’s owner is open for business. Money sits partially hidden in stuffed containers. The World Cup has not just been good for business at the Hilton or Starbucks, but it has driven dollars and pesos into the barrios where people live on less than $(USD)400 a month.
Baggies of cocaine go for the equivalent of $8. A hit of crack costs $2 and a baggie of marijuana is on the market today for $4.
Most of the customers are locals. But the dealers say that more people are coming from the wealthier barrios because the police presence in high-priced areas have driven the dealers, hookers and criminals into the shantytowns.
Jorge is 22. He has bleached hair and with his board shorts and flip-flops could be any “surfer-dude” in California. Only the AR-15 over his shoulder betrays him as being something else.
“I was born in the middle of drug-dealing. I didn’t have any other choice,” Jorge says. “If I could’ve chosen, I would’ve been a doctor.”
For many decades, Rio’s favelas were ignored by the authorities. Even the police considered them no-man’s land and wouldn’t go there. Drug gangs fought for control and gang leaders became judge, jury and executioner. It was all part of day-to-day life.
Jorge finds that the greater police presence makes life worse in his barrio. Under the pacification program, police have reduced crime and killings in the barrios which have been taken from the drug gangs, but the cops showed brutality in using strong-arm tactics and excessive violence. More than one “policia” has been arrested; accused of murder.
The barrios that have been cleared of gangs for the wealthy tourists and the beautiful people, make a mockery of the life along the edges.
In a month, when the World Cup is over, businessmen in Rio de Janeiro will be counting the money, greed will still permeate the tourist areas that have gone silent, but in the barrios, life is still hard cold and brutal. The girl in the makeup will wake up after the prom and she is still plain.
Opinion by Jerry Nelson