There have been a number of stories circulating about the situation in Rio - ranging from how the city of Rio de Janeiro is in a state of semi-anarchy after an uprising by the drug gangs, to a few arrests have been made up in the north. I’ve documented my experiences over the last two days in an attempt to give an ‘ordinary perspective’ of the situation. What I say is true for me, and for many other people, but is not (and cannot be) the entire story - purely because I’ve mostly been in the areas of the city which are less dangerous than others. It is, however, important to note that, because many of the reports coming out are from people in similar circumstances to mine.
I went to CDI yesterday afternoon, after Soccerex had closed, to get a better idea of what had happened with the International Expansion project over the days I’d been away. I took a late afternoon bus from Leme to where Pinhero Machado crosses Rua das Laranjeiras.
Walking back from Pinhero Machado to Rua Alice, a police car drove past. This is hardly unusual - it’s actually a daily occurrence (at minimum) in most parts of Rio. A few minutes later, a convoy of police cars and vans went past, about 5 or so. They included a bakkie with some heavily-armed police officers hanging out the back, and a patrol car with an officer leaning out the passenger window, cradling an automatic rifle pointed at the civilians as they drove past. This is less common.
I looked for where they were going - up Laranjeiras, towards Cosme Velho and Corcovado? Or up Rua Alice, past CDI, towards the favela above Laranjeiras? They turned up Alice, and that was the first point of worry. A few minutes later, I arrived in the CDI office, and was told that my boss was in a meeting. When she and the others came out, they were visibly nervous. I spoke to Antonio for a while, only to be cut off when he explained that he urgently needed to get back home. I had no idea what was going on, and given the terse responses, I decided to ask my boss.
She explained that, in an unprecedented move, the two largest drug gangs in Rio - usually bitter rivals - had started working together against the police and the government agencies that were trying to shut them down. The UPPs (Police Pacification Units), which have so far been very effective in occupying favelas and expelling the drug dealers, have caused enough of a problem for the gangs that they - apparently - have started to fight back.
From the stories she had heard, the gangs blocked off some roads, stopping buses, cars and taxis, and robbing the occupants before setting fire to the vehicles. I later read that four boys had been arrested with Molotov cocktails in Copacobana, and there had been a bomb scare in Ipanema. The gangs had also, in a rare move, left the favelas that they operate in, and were entering parts of the city that were usually seen as ‘safe’.
In the office, everyone was packing up and leaving. Security in Rua Alice had told the CDI employees to close early and go home, in anticipation of the gangs coming down into Laranjeiras. Some of these were documented by reputable news agencies, but some of the stories sounded like urban legends that simply fed the fear.
Stay inside, don’t walk around. Definitely, definitely, don’t take a bus - or a taxi if you can help it. It’s dangerous. People are panicking. I was told all of this - after having done all of the above for the entire day. I hadn’t heard anything about it until then, and I wasn’t sure I was on the same level of panic as everyone else. I don’t tend to buy that sort of line anyway, and last night was no exception.
Besides, I had a dinner arrangement with a lawyer in Leblon, and I wasn’t going to miss an excellent dinner because of some rumours. I returned home briefly, checked up on the news, which said that 13 people had been killed in the city and that the police were out in full force, with all officers called in for duty, and that the federal police had also been requested to come in and protect the highways. I told my roommate and the owner of the apartment, neither of whom knew anything about the ‘crisis’ and hadn’t noticed anything particularly unusual themselves. They were slightly more concerned, but the owner left for work nonetheless.
As it turned out, it was good that I also didn’t bother with the panic, as the bus ride down to Leblon was only slightly more eventful than usual. Nothing particularly terrifying: I lost my balance and fell over as I was making my way to the exit, when the driver decided to turn a sharp corner at speed. I walked - alone! at night! - through the streets of Leblon, trying to find the restaurant we had a reservation at.
With no further incidents, I arrived at Zuka just after 8pm, when we had arranged to meet, and met up with the lawyer. My mother joined us a little later, apologising for the delay - not due to violence, but to traffic in Ipanema. We spoke for a while about the rumours of the Rio Riots, and the lawyer gave the best analysis I’ve heard about it. It was rational and clear, without being swept up in the panic.
He explained that, firstly, this type of violence is cyclical and returns, year after year. The police will push forward into the favelas, the drug gangs push back to protect their operations. It’s sadly true that more people are killed or injured during this time, but it’s not quite how the media portray the ‘13 people killed across Rio’. Very few average civilians are involved, and most of this violence takes place in the drug gangs’ territory - in the favelas. The police raid hotspots, and clash with the gangs, and that is where most of the violence is actually happening. Innocent locals tend to stay away from that sort of thing - with the tragic and notable exception of a young girl who was injured by a stray bullet.
The people who make the most noise about it, however, are often those who are least affected - people like those living in Leblon, whose privileged and sheltered lives don’t often take them into the path of danger. He pointed out that, while they are somewhat justifiably more concerned about the increase in violence, they tend to blow things out of proportion as they are ‘born scared’.
At the same time, it was certainly out of the ordinary - to the point that his law firm (a major one in Brazil) had sent out an email to the employees, telling them that they could stay home the following day if they chose to. It made sense for some of the staff, particularly those living in northern Rio, where the situation was certainly more tense than in Zona Sul.
Still, the ‘panic’ gripping the city was (and at the time of writing, is) best shown by the source of most of the information: a tsunami of terrified tweets. Twitter, as my boss mentioned just before leaving, was ‘ablaze with people tweeting about the danger’. If you think of who the people are who are able to use twitter - well, we’re back to a stereotyped ‘Leblon yuppie’. The other main source of information comes from those who stand to gain significantly from the politics of fear: scaremongering ministers and politicians. Apparently (and I can’t verify this myself, as I don’t speak enough Portuguese) there were a number of officials interviews on the radio who were fanning the fear.
That said, we ate dinner in peace and discussed the World Cup - both in South Africa and Brazil - and saw a few people from Soccerex (including a gentleman from FIFA at the table next to us). The Lawyer offered to drive us home - refusing to let us take a taxi because it was, he explained jokingly, ‘too dangerous’.
Fundamentally, the ‘Rio Riots’ are a larger-scale version of the day-to-day problems that plague the favelas. There is a danger, as there always is, but it’s been highly overrated here, as it always is. Rio is certainly not as safe as, say, Zurich or Toronto, but it’s not quite the ‘warzone’ that some people portray it as. Perhaps I don’t know the reality to the extent I should, but when people who are in similar situations to me are panicking about their personal safety, I think it’s reasonable to say that they are overreacting.
Some links, if you’d like more information, or a different view:
What have your experiences been?