Rio: Crime, Corruption and Mega-events


‘The system is fucked’. That is the conclusion reached at the end of the film that has become in the last few weeks Brazil’s most succesful production of all time. ‘Tropa da Elite 2’ is the sequel to a film which itself broke box office records in 2007. It is, in the words of the film’s director José Padilha, unusual for such a politically and socially engaged film to meet with such success.

The first film depicted a series of invasions of favelas by the incredibly brutal military police known as BOPE. It was based on real accounts from former BPE agents, and focussed on the attempts to ‘clean up’ the favelas in preparation for the visit of the Pope in 1997. Some people interpreted the film’s tortured protaganist, Captain Nascimento, as an action hero mercilessly blowing away the bandits, which was not precisely the intention of the film makers.

Any kind of gung-ho interpretation of the sequel is not possible. In the new film Captain Nascimento joins forces with a prominent human rights activist to challenge the growing power of the milícias, mafia gangs mostly made up of former (and often serving) police officers who dominate life in many of the favelas, charging extortionate rates for services such as electricity and gas supplies, cable TV and internet, and threatening, beating and murdering those who stand up to them. The film depicts the way in which they have taken over from the drug gangs that used to dominate crime in the favelas, and also highlights the levels of corruption which permit and sustain their activity, reaching up to the highest echelons in the political system: corrupt politicians in the Rio government and in Brasilia itself – hence the stark and bitter conclusion to the film.

After the recent successful operation by the military to expel the drug trafficking gangs from their strongholds in certain favelas, police officers moving into areas previously outside their control were accused by residents of acting ‘just like in the film’ – demanding favours and a share of the income of local businesses. However in recent weeks the focus in the media has not been on the militias themselves, but on the drug gangs.

The drug gangs appear to be on the wane, but the power of the militias is much more deeply entrenched. Through intimidation and bribery they manage to get their own representatives elected to the city council, in order to protect and promote their interests. As for where the proceeds from extortion go, the profits do not all go into the pockets of those further up the scale, but also subsidise the pitifully low salaries of the police, who because they earn only around $800US per month often moonlight as private security guards, either independently or with the mafias. The book of the film even goes as far as to say that in Rio, the problem of violent crime is the police.

In Brazil the police and the military are know as the ‘public security’ forces. However, according to Marcelo Freixo, there is no such thing as public security. He is well placed to judge; for the last number of years he has been a human rights activist fighting against police corruption in the city. It is on Freixo that the character in the film who tries to take on the mafia gangs is based. He has also just begun his second term as a representative on the city council, on behalf of the Socialism and Freedom Party, which split from the ruling Worker’s Party in 2002.

In that capacity has sought to uncover corruption, to expose links between the mafias, the police and politicians, and it was he who instituted a far-reaching public inquiry into these questions. The recommendations that the inquiry produced have still not been implemented. Although the character in the film has a different name, in the book of the film he appears under his own name, and so he has gained a significant profile as someone prepared to challenge power in its most dangerous form. The film and the book both show clearly the terrible dangers that anyone brave enough to stand up to the milícias faces.

It is significant that in the first ‘Tropa da Elite’ film the favela is being cleaned up to ensure security for the visit of an international VIP, the Pope. Ten years later the Pan American Games saw the then governor of Rio reportedly embarking on a campaign to ‘retake the favelas’. The games brought new stadiums and a great deal of investment to some of the wealthier parts of the city, but, in the words of a community activist in one of the favelas, delivered ‘nada para os moradores’ – nothing for the people who actually live in the poorer parts of the city.

More recently the Rio government has launched a campaign to install police posts in some of the areas they were previously afraid to enter. By and large this has been a success in the limited areas where it has been implemented, and the events of the last few weeks, with supposedly impregnable strongholds of the drug gangs invaded and occupied in a very short space of time, have taken everyone by surprise, not least the drug gangs themselves. But as the film shows and as activists such as Marcelo Freixo have tried to make clear, the corruption and violence which blight the lives of hundreds of thousands of people throughout Rio is not at this stage directed or controlled by the drug gangs, but by the militias, whose power is more deeply entrenched.

It is very clear what the impetus for this current campaign to retake certain favelas is about: it is in preparation for the coming of the football World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games two years later. As an increasing amount of people around the world are aware, there is a history of the poor being shunted out of town to make way for these mega-events, as we have seen recently in Beijing, where the residents were impolitely requested to stay inside their homes so as not to get in the way of the important foreign guests, and in South Africa, where a movement sprung up fuelled by outrage at the forced evictions of shack dwellers to enable corrupt land deals backed up by the full force of the state.

Remaking the city for such events is not just a cosmetic exercise – it forms part of a strategy to remake the host city more amenable for business interests and tourism. It is also a means of forcing up rents and land and property prices – poverty that can not be physically forced out of sight and out of mind will not be able to withstand the increase in the cost of living as speculators move in – which raises the question of where the poor are to live. In the 1960s and 1970s the answer to the ‘problem’ of the favela was to uproot and force entire communities away from the centre, to the far west of the city. It has been suggested – and evidence shows – that this is what the preparations for the upcoming events will bring about.

Rio is said to be the capital of informality. The favelas are held to be one of its charms, and the views from some of the those located close to the centre are some of the most iconic images of the city. In Rio, the spontaneity and chaos are very much selling points, and the city is sometimes idealised as a space of democracy: rodas de samba, carnival and the beach, spaces which everyone, rich and poor, shares. Reality often and clearly contradicts this picture; the other side of this unboundedness is social exclusion, the threat of violence and the reality of third-world levels of deprivation. Tourists now flock to favelas on organised tours to get a closer look at this curious mix of heaven and hell. But if these spaces of informality are to be formalised, for whose benefit will it be? For the people who live there, or for the rich visitors? And to whom will these spaces belong once the VIPS have left?

Mega-events such as the Olympics and the World Cup seek to submit all local control to commercial interests backed up by the legal and physical might of the state, and to channel and control all surrounding economic activity in such a way as to benefit certain formal interests which operate, as Andrew Jennings has ably demonstrated, in a world of backhanders and sweeteners. The reality behind the airbrushed images is one of extortion and bribery, both formal and informal. Given the obscene corruption of FIFA and the Olympic Committee, amply documented on this site, and given the recent history of the brutal displacements in Beijing and South Africa, it is clear that corruption in Brazil is about to move up to another level. Fortunately there are signs of a growing movement in Rio to begin to expose and challenge the attempt to remake the city in the interests of corrupt international cartels which are much more powerful, but in a way very similar, to the mafia gangs that seek to control and exploit Rio’s favelas. It is, after all, in the words of Captain Nascimento, no accident that favelas exist in the first place.

A few lines on Rio and the Olympics

Sérgio Buarque de Holanda wrote in Raízes do Brasil that south of the equator, there is no such thing as sin. When one thinks of Rio de Janeiro, it is this unboundedness that comes to mind: the spontaneous coming together of bodies, whether in pleasure or in pain, a visceral sensuality and brutality, everything in glorious excess: sex, violence, heat and rhythm; excitement and danger; glamourous wealth and spectacular poverty. Whereas the international Rio of the 1950s was a suave tropical paradise, a playground for the rich, today’s updated image of Rio also acknowledges and, up to a point, celebrates the danger in the form of the stylised violence of Cidade de Deus, and the vicarious, pornographic horrors of baile funk.

Less popular outside Brazil but exponentially more popular inside the country was the film Tropa da elite (eleven million people had reportedly see the film even before it was officially released), which shows the city up somewhat in a much more brutal and far less picturesque manner than Cidade de Deus, making it resemble a tropical Baghdad or Baltimore. The film shows and, according to some, exalts in the violence unleashed by a special police force (the notorious BOPE) in the attempt to clean up the favelas in preparation for the visit of the Pope in 1997.

More upheaval was to come ten years later with the hosting of the Panamerican games, with the then governor of Rio reportedly embarking on a campaign to ‘retake the favelas‘. The games brought new stadiums and a great deal of investment to some of the wealthier parts of the city, but, in the words of a community activist in one of the favelas, delivered ‘nada para os moradores‘ – nothing for the people who actually live in the poorer parts of the city.

Now Rio is to host not just the World Cup in 2016, but also play a major part in the hosting of the Olympic Games two years later. No surprises then at the reaction to the shooting down of a helicopter in one of the favelas late last week. This attack took place despite, or possibly because of the fact that ‘has spent the past year expelling drug gangs and vigilantes from four slums and setting up “pacification” projects by which the slums are permanently occupied by police.’ in response to the attack, the authorities have renewed their promise/threat to clean up the favelas before the VIPs arrive. Comments on Brazilian websites have suggested that the BOPE will have their work cut out over the next seven years.

Megaevents such as the World Cup and the Olympics are now widely understood to involve a very high degree of often very brutal social control. The city must be made safe, negotiable and above all mediatic. Undesirable and unpredictable elements must be airbrushed out of the picture in the bid to produce wholesome and marketable images. But the effects of this process are more than merely cosmetic. The ritual process of evictions, displacements and general corruption that accompanies these events is widely documented elsewhere on this site.

Mega-events transform the city into spectacle, and the airbrushing that gets rid of the evidence – but never the reality – of poverty and inequality is an act of great violence. The brutal forced removals of shanty-town dwellers in South Africa – another society with breathtaking inequalities, largely organised along racial lines – give the lie to the idea that the games in either South Africa or Brazil will be a meaningful celebration of multicultural diversity, one huge party to which everyone is invited.

Rio is a city in which, to paraphrase Andy Merrifield, people would rather stay and be poor than go and live somewhere else. Not that the people of the favelas want to be poor: they would like to have accessible and affordable health and sanitation facilities, proper public transport, investment in education. The same things that the poor would benefit from in any other city, in fact. But the neoliberal city is not about providing these things. It is about getting rid of the poor and appropriating urban space in order to develop an exclusive, private infrastructure: world-class facilities for world-class people.

Sporting megaevents (along with international expos, cities of culture and so on) have a particular role to play in neoliberal urban development. They are an increasingly powerful tool with which cities are remade according to an agenda of transforming the urban environment from a place of spontaneity, unpredictability and the encounter with difference into a much more controlled, homogenous, sanitised space, a theme park and a site of privileged consumption which benefits, primarily, a tiny elite of property developers and large corporate interests (and, one might add, their political servants). Throughout the world the places that poor people are permitted to live are, in a series of orchestrated seismic shocks, shifted away from the centre of the city (and, we might mention, the beach). In the process, that spontaneity, that unboundedness, that constitutes the identity of a city like Rio is destroyed, replaced with a calculable, controlled and entirely dead environment of luxury apartments, shopping malls, private entertainment complexes, and, of course, the ubiquitous empty stadiums, places built by the people who can no longer afford to live in the city, and who could never in their wildest dreams afford to go and see a game. The World Cup and the Olympics, wherever they take place, are not about three weeks of media spectacle. They are about violently taking control of and remaking the city in the interests of the global elite.