Is Rio de Janeiro Ready for the Olympics?

Is Rio de Janeiro Ready for the Olympics?

Bryan McCann: Is Rio Ready For the Olympics?

ON OCTOBER 1 of this year, the International Olympic Committee announced Rio de Janeiro as the winner of the competition to host the 2016 summer games. Two weeks later, a turf battle between two rival criminal networks erupted on the city’s north side in the favela—a neighborhood of irregular occupation and haphazard housing—of Morro dos Macacos. Police responded with a botched invasion. The traficantes, or drug-traffickers, shot down a police helicopter, rallied their troops, and engaged in prolonged shootouts while residents cowered in improvised bunkers. Days later, the neighborhood was still effectively besieged.

On the same weekend the gunfights began in Morro dos Macacos, Evandro João da Silva—one of the city’s most prominent social activists—was killed in an apparent mugging. Silva was walking towards a nightclub in the pre-dawn hours of a Sunday morning when he was accosted by two assailants. He resisted, and they shot him, stole his belongings, and left him to die on the sidewalk. A squad car drove by moments later but did not stop. The police soon apprehended the killers but only detained them long enough to strip them of the jacket and sneakers they had stolen from the victim, and then they let them go. Security cameras on adjacent buildings had captured the events as they had happened.

The rapid succession of these events caused many observers to wonder whether Rio is up to the task of hosting the games—and what kind of price doing so will exact from the city’s poor. In recent decades the city has tolerated the expansion of turf-occupying criminal networks in its favelas, home to at least one-fourth of the city’s population. These networks include drug- and arms-running gangs but also include the milícias, the self-defense militias—predominantly made up of off-duty police and firemen—that are ostensibly organized to fight the traficantes. As the networks have consolidated their claims to slices of urban turf, they have branched out into more mundane but often equally lucrative sectors—such as irregular van and moto-taxi services and the delivery of cooking-gas canisters. They have also become well-armed and entrenched extortion rackets.

Public officials bemoan this state of affairs and oversee spectacular invasions of specific neighborhoods by security forces that are often followed by desultory occupations and then quiet withdrawal. But most officials accommodate the turf-monopolizing practices of the criminal networks, trading tolerance of their extortion rackets for some semblance of order.

Common street crime flourishes in this environment, particularly in neighborhoods not occupied by one of these networks. The narrow streets of the old city center, deserted and impersonal at night, are a prime example. Muggings and carjackings sometimes serve as an alternative revenue stream for the traficantes when other sources of income are reduced—for example, when police temporarily occupy bocas de fumo, or drug sales points. The militias and the overlapping police force, meanwhile, have their own alternative source of revenue: shaking down traficantes and street criminals.

NO ONE is secure in this system, but favela residents are particularly vulnerable. Police often treat them as suspects of unspecified crimes in a context where the poor have no practical access to civil rights.

By definition, favela residents cannot rest their claim to citizenship on secure possession of property. As inhabitants of neighborhoods excluded from the city’s legal framework, they cannot expect public education, healthcare, utilities and infrastructural maintenance as a matter of course, but must bargain for these goods in a delicate and contentious process of informal collective negotiation. Habitual antagonism from the police and the lingering threat of eviction give residents ample cause to accept the turf control of either traficantes or milícias. In fact, they often make little distinction between them, and incorporation into one of the networks can offer a promise—albeit often a weak one—of day-to-day stability

The networks are inherently expansionary, and there is little to check their advances other than competition from rival networks. Only the poorest and smallest of favelas are unconnected to a network. (The latest reliable study, by the Nucleus for Research on Violence at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, estimates that only some 15 percent of the city’s favelas remain independent of traficante or milícia control.)

This does not mean that Rio is unprepared to host the Olympics. Over the past two decades, Rio law-and-order officials have been able to temporarily suppress turf battles during major events—from the 1992 international environmental conference to the 2007 Pan-American Games. The nature of the networks facilitates, rather than hinders, this temporary suppression: they are amenable to blandishments and threats and have demonstrated the ability to guarantee an appearance of security for two weeks in order to resume customary activities as soon as visiting dignitaries leave town.

So the real question, then, is whether in the long run the Olympics would make things worse or better. The social and economic costs of the games in other cities are a well-known phenomenon. Nepotistic distribution of Olympic perquisites, rising public debt, and fluctuating real-estate values will doubtlessly precede and follow the games, but these will be difficult to distinguish from local politics as usual. Some of Rio’s vulnerable citizens will suffer adverse effects, but these are not likely to be widespread.

Rio is not Beijing, and political authorities can count on strenuous political opposition to the evictions required to make way for Olympic facilities. Rio’s major favelas withstood attempted removal in the 1960s and 1970s, and they are now recognized as permanent neighborhoods, despite the fact that their denizens are denied property rights and regular services. Smaller and more recent favelas have no guarantees, but even they have high survival rates: the city’s political machinery dictates that in the vast majority of cases facts on the ground trump blueprints for change.

The Olympics, however, has galvanized activists to improve the city—in particular, the housing and security policies that have driven the proliferation of favelas. Existing housing policies make it prohibitively expensive and bureaucratically untenable to construct low-income housing within the city’s regular legal framework. They also create incentives for favela residents to tolerate the turf claims of criminal networks, in order to defend their fragile urban perch. Revising these policies so that they stimulate construction of legal, low-income housing and grant secure property rights to residents of consolidated favelas might help loosen the grip of the networks. This rethinking of policy is all the more challenging because it would also require confronting the networks themselves.

Some local activists are working to change Rio’s urban policies in an effort to ensure that the social legacy of the Olympics is positive. The Rio-based NGO Catalytic Communities, for example, has mobilized an international network to try to turn the Olympics into an opportunity for urban upgrading and incorporation rather than slum removal. CatComm is training hundreds of leaders from poor communities around the city to use new social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube to create a central clearinghouse of information. The goal is to enable local residents to draw attention to the real effects of Olympic projects as well as failed security and housing policies.

Another loose union of activists has created the Forum for an Olympic Legacy to keep tabs on where Olympic money is invested and who profits. This focus on fiscal transparency could be one of the most consequential forms of local social activism, drawing attention to patterns of investment that perpetuate, rather than undermine, criminal turf control. Like CatComm, the Forum is also training community journalists to document and audit urban transformation as the games approach.

Such efforts might eventually prove crucial in challenging the “law of silence” enforced by criminal networks over local residents. Urban violence notwithstanding, Rio is a democratic city with a strong civil sector, and these initiatives have every possibility of achieving significant local victories. But whether they can have any influence over the larger picture of criminal turf expansion will depend on whether their grassroots efforts are met by sincere and innovative strategies from political leaders. In the meantime, Rio’s failed security tactics–as well as its problematic housing policies–will guarantee the repetition of violence and urban conflict even if it is to ameliorated by a brief period of Olympic truce.

Bryan McCann is the author of Throes of Democracy: Brazil since 1989 (Zed 008) and of a forthcoming study on conflict over urban space in Rio de Janeiro over the last fifty years. He teaches Brazilian History at Georgetown University. (Photo: Klaus with K / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Sharealike 3.0)

The Núcleo de Pesquisa de Violência study can be downloaded here:

And is cited in this article in the Estado de São Paulo, “Milícias já dominam mais favelas que o tráfico no Rio,” 9 Nov 2009:,milicias-ja-dominam-mais-favelas-que-o-trafico-no-rio,464229,0.htm

The Catalytic Communities project is linked here:

And the Rio Forum for an Olympic Legacy is discussed in this article in the Folha de São Paulo, “Ongs criam grupo para fiscalizar gastos da Rio 2016,”