As international athletes chase gold medals during Rio’s 2016 Olympic games, the city’s poorest residents are ducking bullets.
Gunfights in the shantytowns known as favelas were supposed to die down well before the competition began. The games, Brazilian officials promised in their bid to the International Olympic Committee, would act as “a major catalyst” to improve safety, as well as many other aspects of life in Rio.
Instead, the city’s hosting of the mega-event has made favela dwellers all the more aware of their crime problem—and the vast economic inequality that has long kept them segregated from the rest of the city.
The words Brazilians use to refer to the different areas of Rio fittingly describe those divisions. Asfalto, or asphalt, is where official life takes place, where neighborhoods are accounted for in government records and where public services are regularly provided. Up in the hills in the favelas, on the other hand, homes without formal addresses dot unnamed, windy alleys, where many residents still depend on informal ways to barely scratch out a living.
When Rio won the Olympics, in 2009, Brazil’s economy was thriving thanks to the booming commodities markets. Organizers pledged to make social inclusion a top priority. Back then it seemed plausible, even for long-neglected favela residents, that a mega sporting event could bring tangible improvements to their communities.
And it did, at first. As Rio prepared to host the Olympics, it expanded a new policing program to “pacify” some three dozen favelas. That meant that instead of storming the communities sporadically to fight drug dealers, police would take over the territory and set up a permanent presence through pacifying police units, known as UPPs for their acronym in Portuguese.
The results were remarkable. The number of murders had dropped by 30% to around 4,000 between 2009 and 2012, according to Rio’s state security agency (pdf, link in Portuguese). Killings by police decreased by nearly 70% from a high of 1,330 in 2007 to 416 in 2013.
In Alemão, the headquarters of one of Rio’s most dangerous gangs, residents marveled at the absent blare of gunshots, says César Muñoz, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, who has worked in the favelas. “There was this sense that ‘yes, things can change.’”
But the shootouts already are back to being a regular occurrence in Alemão and other favelas. The main reason, Muñoz says, is that authorities didn’t keep the new community police in check. After plummeting, killings at the hands of police are on the rise again. Nearly 650 were reported in 2015, and in the first five months of 2016, 322 had already been recorded, according to Human Rights Watch.
The result is that favela residents, who were supposed to help police officers with tips and by standing as witnesses, lost trust in them, Muñoz says.
“I hope the Olympic Games are over soon because the only legacy I see is repression, militarisation and war,” an Alemão resident wrote in an op-ed in the Guardian.
Still no asphalt in the hills
The government also failed to follow through on another promise it made, to provide public services to improve life in favelas. During a TED talk in 2012, Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said his goal was to completely urbanize the favelas by 2020. But his lofty plan (Portuguese) petered out without much to show for it. Meanwhile, initial efforts to reform favelas eliminated informal jobs, like driving moto-taxis, that many locals depended on.
“What the Olympics has done is reinforce the division between the haves and have-nots,” says Robert Muggah, a security expert at at Igarapé Institute, a Rio-based think tank. “It’s an opportunity that has been missed, to engage with some of these structural issues.”
Rio has spent money on transforming itself, as it had vowed to do as part of its Olympic bid, but most of the investment went to places other than the favelas. A map analysis of the Olympic projects published by community journalism site Rio On Watch shows most of the new development is concentrated in the richer parts of town.
Even the public transit additions, the promises the organizers kept, were built to connect affluent areas to each other. Meanwhile, tens of thousands (Portuguese) of favela residents were removed ahead of the Olympics, or put out of view behind a wall.
So when producers of the games’ opening ceremony depicted favelas as impossibly vibrant, upbeat places, locals were displeased.
“They showed a dream favela, a fiction,” one told The New Yorker.
Even as violence has intensified in favelas, police are being redeployed to Olympic venues and touristy areas during the games.
That could be a taste of what life will be after the Olympics are over. Despite its early success, it’s unclear whether the “pacification” program will survive, experts say.
Although it was created before Rio won its bid to host the games, researchers and residents saw it as part of the efforts (pdf) to make the city presentable for the big event. Indeed, many of the “pacified” favelas are those around Olympic installations, not necessarily the ones with the highest crime rates, according to a real-estate analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
The majority of residents in pacified favelas—more than 60% in those that have been recently pacified, and nearly 90% in early adopters of the program—say that UPPs should stay in place after the Olympics. But many—more than 40%—fear that they will be removed, according to a survey (pdf, Portuguese) of 2,000 favela dwellers released earlier this summer by the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a think tank.
Rio’s state security department has said the program will remain (Portuguese.) But given Rio’s catastrophic financial situation, tied to Brazil’s economic crisis and the collapse in oil prices, the agency already had cut its budget even before tourists and athletes started arriving to celebrate the Olympics. Some are already calling out who the biggest losers will be.
“There will be more violence, more violence in all the communities because of the fights between the drug gangs, fights against the police,” a hostel owner in one of the favelas told NPR. “In the end the ones who will pay for this will be the residents, as always.”