In Rio de Janeiro, the host of the first ever South American Olympic Games this summer, locals know that to sit down on the grass or a bench in a downtown public park is something you just don’t do. Walking – at certain times of day – is okay but if you stop, they say, it makes you an easy target for muggers, gangs and the prolific violence that has shattered so many lives amid the spectacular, crumbling beauty of Brazil’s Marvellous City.
The fear of violent crime in Rio is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, all the time. It determines which route you take to work, how much money you carry in your wallet, when and how you travel around the city. This is hardly surprising given that Brazil has the highest number of homicides in the world. In 2014, the year the country hosted the World Cup, 60,000 people were murdered. Most Cariocas – as Rio residents are known – have more than one terrifying story to tell about armed street robberies, kidnappings and stray bullets.
The effects of this violence, however, are not felt evenly across this deeply divided society. The majority of victims are young, black men from favelas and other poor communities, and shockingly, hundreds of the killings are carried out by security forces whose job it is – or should be – to keep people safe.
In 2014, police in the state of Rio killed 580 people, a 40 per cent increase on the previous 12 months. Last year, the number was even higher – 645. Of those, 307 occurred in the city itself, representing nearly 20% of the total number of homicides there.
The Olympics were supposed to change all this. When Rio was awarded the Games in 2009, the organisers promised that their legacy would be a ‘safe city’ for all, but what they brought was the complete opposite.
The three months running up to the Games saw a uge increase in the number of people killed by police in Rio compared to the same period last year. According to figures from Brazil’s Public Security Institute, 35 people were killed by police in April, 40 in May and 49 in June – an average of more than one a day. In May, across Rio state as a whole, police killings almost doubled on the same month the previous year, from 44 to 84.
During the three weeks of the Games themselves, while the likes of Usain Bolt, Nicola Adams and Mo Farah were celebrating their gold medals, police killed at least eight people in Rio’s favelas. Worrying though these figures are, what is perhaps more alarming is that it’s not the first time there have been human rights abuses linked to a major sports event in Brazil.
In 2007, Rio hosted the Pan-American Games, ahead of which at least 19 people were a killed in a major police operation in the favela of Alemao in the north of the city – a bloody episode that became known as the Pan Killings.
Two years ago, when Brazil hosted the World Cup, a violent crackdown on demonstrations against the football tournament saw many peaceful protestors and passers-by seriously injured or arrested and jailed. Meanwhile, as with the Olympics, the number of people killed or injured by police or armed forces increased during the ‘security operation’ around the event.
One of them was 30-year-old Vitor Santiago from Maré, a ramshackle favela near Rio’s international airport. Shortly before the World Cup, nearly 3000 soldiers were put on checkpoints and patrols in the community, parking their armoured vehicles on the cramped, uneven streets – in the name of security. The World Cup lasted a month, yet they stayed for over a year.
One night in February 2015, Vitor was with a group of friends, driving home after a night out in a bar watching their team Flamengo, when the car was stopped at a military checkpoint.
They pulled over and got out, while the soldiers searched the group and checked over the vehicle. They were given the all clear, and went on their way. But a little further on, they saw another checkpoint and suddenly, with no warning, the soldiers stationed there opened fire on the car. Vitor, sitting in the back, tried to get on the floor but a bullet pierced the car door, entered the side of his torso, hit one of his ribs, pierced his lung, and struck his spine.
“At that moment I lost all sensation below my waist, I couldn’t feel my legs,” he told Amnesty earlier this year. “If the bullet had entered any higher, I would have ended up paralysed from the neck down. I was in the car and all I remember is the sound of windows smashing and not knowing what was going on. I didn’t know where I was injured, if the bullet had come from behind or another angle….there was a lot of blood.”
He drifted in and out of consciousness for a few minutes and remembers a “tremendous noise” outside the car – people shouting and screaming – and then he fell into a coma.
A week later when he woke up, doctors told Vitor that they hadn’t expected him to survive. They told him a second bullet had entered his left thigh, destroyed the bone, and passed through into his right leg and pierced an artery. The only way to save his life, they said, was to amputate his leg. Because of the first bullet that hit his spine, he learned that he would probably never regain feeling below the waist.
For over a year and a half now, Vitor has been mostly confined to the small house in Maré he shares with his parents – the stairs down to the front door are so steep and narrow that getting his wheelchair up and down is a very difficult task. And in all the time that has passed, no-one in the military has been held accountable.
Among the scores killed in Rio in the following months was ten-year-old Eduardo de Jesus. In April last year in Alemao, he had been sitting on his doorstep playing with his mobile phone, when a police patrol passed by and an officer shot him in the head. He was killed instantly. These attacks are so frequent that they barely make the news in Rio.
Brazil is not the only country where major sports events have been marred by serious human rights abuses – during the Beijing Olympics in 2008 there was a crackdown on peaceful demonstrations with many protesters jailed, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia – which will host the 2018 World Cup – were accompanied by a crackdown on LGBT rights, in the run up to the European Games in Baku last summer the authorities’ repression of government critics intensified, and World Cup will be held in Qatar in 2022, where abuses of workers on stadiums and wider infrastructure for the event have been documented by Amnesty and others.
But Brazil has hosted three of these events in less than ten years, and its failure to learn from its mistakes and to ensure that they didn’t bring with them a prescription of deadly violence is breath-taking. The Olympics caravan has moved on and broken promises have left the city as dangerous as ever for its most marginalised residents. If it will be a long time before the parks of central Rio feel safe, it will be even longer before people in the poorest areas aren’t living in fear of deadly violence, including from those who are supposed to protect them, and risking their lives every day simply by sitting on their doorstep or going out to a bar to watch a football match.
Amnesty International UK
The Human Rights Action Centre