Brazil’s economic crisis has ravaged government budgets, with Rio harder hit than most — the state government was forced to declare a state of financial emergency last year and faces dramatic budget shortfalls in its hospitals and schools.
Political paralysis wrought by the corruption scandals has created a vacuum that Brazil’s criminal gangs are rapidly trying to fill. The violence is hardening public attitudes on law and order, analysts say, and opening the way in next year’s elections for populist, rightwing candidates who already have some traction in Rio.
A corruption scandal centred on Petrobras, the state-owned oil company based in Rio, has implicated much of the political elite, including President Michel Temer, who survived a vote in congress on Wednesday on whether he should face a criminal trial. One former governor of Rio state, Sérgio Cabral, has already been imprisoned as a result of the scandal, which is threatening the careers of scores of other politicians from the state.
One result is that Rio is one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a police officer, with 91 killed so far this year, according to a count by local media. This compared with 23 officers killed in firearm-related incidents in the first six months of this year in the entire US. One study by the state military police, as regular police are known, claims that an officer in Rio is more likely to be killed on duty than a US soldier was in the second world war or Vietnam.
Rio was the first South American city to hold the Summer Games and organizers were credited with staging a successful show — from the moving opening ceremony to the exploits of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and US swimming superman Michael Phelps. “The public security sector is severely, chronically underfunded, it suffers from some weak leadership and the police has extraordinary low morale right now,” says Robert Muggah, research director of the Igarapé Institute in Rio, a think-tank on security issues.
Plagued by violence, white elephant sports facilities and corruption scandals, Rio de Janeiro today is unrecognizable from the feelgood city greeting the world at the Olympics exactly a year ago. But as soon as the athletes packed their bags and cameras stopped rolling, barely hidden problems erupted.
Eduardo Paes, mayor of Rio during the Olympics, said he had made the city, boosted by the temporary deployment of 50,000 troops, “the safest place in the world.” Last month, the army had to return, sending some 8,500 soldiers to support Rio’s cash-strapped police in their brutal fight against narco gangs ruling with near impunity in swaths of the city’s favelas.
Muggings have rocketed in richer neighborhoods, parts of the favelas are like war zones, and stray bullets fired from high powered rifles mean that no one is safe. The last few weeks have seen gunfights spill several times onto the major highway passing the international airport, forcing drivers to stop and hide behind their cars.