In The Media

Far From Olympics, Violence Rises In Rio's Poorest Neighborhoods

byLulu Garcia-Navarro (feat. Robert Muggah)

August 15, 2016

"That bullet almost hit my bed. Have mercy, please God, deliver us," a resident in a group of Rio favelas called Alemao said in a message posted Saturday on the WhatsApp smartphone messaging service.

While media attention has focused on U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte and three other U.S. swimmers who were robbed at gunpoint on Sunday, violence is surging in Rio's favelas, or shantytowns, far from the games.

Alemao has been the most turbulent of Rio's shantytowns. To keep the community safe, residents created a WhatsApp group to share information about which roads are closed because of shootings or whether they should keep their kids home because of a police operation.

Like people everywhere, Lucia Cabral, a social worker in Alemao, checks her phone soon after she wakes up. But when I met her last week, she explained that in these favelas, it's a matter of life or death.

Cabral showed me messages over a period of three days, in order to see the conflict through the eyes of those affected. At her request, we are not identifying the people in the messages.

"Good morning, residents," the first message from last Friday morning reads. "Be careful those who are going out to work, remain at home."

The reason becomes clear when another resident posts a video of what she is seeing through her window: a massive plume of smoke from a car that exploded because the gas tank was hit by bullets.

Heavy gunfire echoes over the tin roof homes. "This situation is so ugly," someone says on the video. "Every day, it's the same [expletive]. Every day."

Another person responds, "It's a war without end."

"Our population is in distress," Cabral messages back to the group.

According to the Fogo Cruzado violence-monitoring app, on average in August during the games, 4.8 people have been wounded by gunfire each day in Rio. That's almost twice as many as were wounded by gunfire in July.

"We are seeing the breakout of shootings, and you are seeing the escalation of stray bullets, you are seeing an escalation in casualties," says Robert Muggah with the Igarape Institute in Rio, which studies violence.

The August jump in violence is linked to the games, he says. Police have been conducting more operations inside the favelas to prevent gangs from causing trouble at the Olympics. But the police are also weaker because so many security forces have been redeployed to protect Olympic infrastructure. So the gangs feel emboldened and are pushing back.

The question for experts and residents is what happens after the games. Rio had already seen a surge in violence in the lead-up to the Olympics because of budget cuts to the security forces in the state. There are now 85,000 soldiers and police in Rio, and for those outside the favelas, that has meant more safety. But when the games are over, those extra forces will disappear, along with the international athletes.

Overall, Muggah says, the Olympics are leaving a troubling legacy for the 25 percent of Rio's population living in favelas.

"There are always trade-offs when conducting these kinds of mega-events," he says. "But I think there was a false promise by the mayor, the governor and the Olympics organizers that the Olympics would contribute to a more inclusive project that would address many of the social and economic challenges of the city. What people feel today is that the elites benefited at the expense of the poorer segments of society."

On Saturday morning, residents of Alemao awoke to yet another gun battle.

"Good morning, friends in the group," begins one typed message. "It's started again."

"So much shooting, my God," another responds.

Different members of the community ask which roads exactly are seeing fighting.

"I think it's on 2nd Street," says one person.

Then audio is posted of a single shot. A woman cries out, "My God, this will destroy my house."

Messages continue throughout the day, pleading for help from God.

Photos follow of bullet holes in the walls of houses.

But on Sunday, Brazil's Father's Day, there is some good news.

"Good morning," Cabral greets the group. "It's a day of remembrance, and it is calm."

That was the same day Lochte and the other swimmers were robbed in a different part of the city. On Monday, there was more violence. In the favela of Canta Galo, a man was shot dead after police were attacked while on patrol. He was the 15th person to be killed in the city since the Olympics began.

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