Brazil violence flares ahead of World Cup

The giant summer tournament is casting ugly spotlight on nation's complex history of social strife

Suspected of being a mugger, a teenager was stripped down and tied to a light pole in Rio.
Yvonne Bezerra de Melo/Barcroft/Landov

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — As he fingered a bicycle lock around his neck that shackled him to a lamppost, the 15-year-old boy’s features were contorted in pain and shame.

Under the dim streetlights of the affluent Flamengo neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro’s south zone, the teenager looked directly at a camera in a silent plea.

He had been stripped naked and bolted to the post by a vigilante group calling themselves the "justiceiros," who believed he had been trying to rob people in the area. Minutes later, an explosion of sparks flew around him as firefighters cut him free.

But the incident also caused sparks of a different kind. The video went viral, and the grim image of the chained teenager is fueling a painful debate on the role violence plays in Brazilian society as it prepares to host the biggest sporting event in the world. There are just three months now until Brazil hosts the World Cup, and violence in Rio is escalating amid rising crime rates, simmering social unrest and longstanding inequality.

“I couldn’t stop crying,” said Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, who lives in Flamengo and found the teenager on the pavement outside her apartment. “What kind of society are we building in Brazil? These are gangs who attack the street population and kids. All poor people are tagged as bandits. I feel so sorry for the children.”

Born out of fear in response to a spate of street crime, such vigilantism appears to be going hand in hand with a further rise in crime. Figures from the Institute of Public Security (ISP) show the number of street robberies in Rio de Janeiro state rose from 4,700 to almost 6,700 last year. And in Flamengo in particular, assaults and muggings on the street have more than doubled in a year.

For Brazilians, that explains why some people have resorted to meting out their own justice. “It’s fair because the state is silent. It doesn’t give the residents any other choice,” said Angelo Castilho, the organizer of an informal group called Flamengo Reacts, set up for residents of the neighborhood, and who sympathized openly with the vigilantes.

For Castilho, such street justice works. “Part of society responded in this way because they saw that the state would do nothing,” he said. “At the moment, after what happened, it is peaceful and calmer. The delinquents are afraid of coming here and police presence increased, along with the presence of social services. It’s a bit tense but not dangerous like before.”  

What kind of society are we building in Brazil? These are gangs who attack the street population and kids. All poor people are tagged as bandits.

Yvonne Bezerra de Mello

Educational campaigner

But the debate around crime and vigilantism also highlights persistent inequality and class conflict in Brazil, despite significant achievements in reducing poverty in the past decade. Since 2003, some 36 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, in part as a result of the pioneering Bolsa Familia welfare scheme introduced by former President Lula da Silva, which gave aid to poor Brazilians, some of it conditional on things like sending children to school or getting vaccinations.

Research by the Getulio Vargas Foundation found that between 2001 and 2008, income inequality decreased successively. Figures showed that the poorest 10 percent saw per capita income rise by 72 percent, while the richest 10 percent experienced an increase of 11 percent.

But some suggest that a recent economic slowdown in Brazil, along with increased public spending and the rising cost of living, has squeezed many people’s wealth and created a new strain in Brazilian society. The rift was demonstrated last summer when more than a million protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against high taxes, underfunded public services and a rise in bus fare that hit the poorest hardest.

Mello, an educational campaigner who runs Projeto Uere school in one of Rio’s most notorious favelas, said discontent over spending on the World Cup had increased, while rising inflation had brought many families back to the poverty line.

“There have never been so many children and young people on the streets of the city,” she added. “I am receiving more and more completely traumatized children at Uere.”

The boy she found in Flamengo has a familiar story; he could be any Daniel, Lucas or Thiago from a favela slum in the west zone of Rio. His father was killed in a drug war raging between gangs, and he has lived on the streets for two years, according to local media reports. Since November, he had passed through municipal shelters five times before the vigilante attack at the end of January.

He was later picked up by police for another suspected robbery in the south zone of the city, a popular tourist spot where many soccer fans will stay this summer. But just 11 days after he was taken to another shelter and given an individual development plan to rehabilitate him, he disappeared back to the streets.

“Children living or working on the streets are at extreme risk of violence and abuse,” said Joe Hewitt, a spokesman for Street Child World Cup, an event taking place in Brazil this month for street children from around the world.

“They are predominantly the victims of Brazil's alarming adolescent mortality rates. They are often marginalized and consequently make an easy scapegoat for society’s fears of rising crime. The incident with the 15-year-old in Flamengo is an example of this. Adequate rehabilitation opportunities which have been proven to work are few and far between for street children in Brazil,” Hewitt added.

Pacification has hit many favelas.
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

The incident in Flamengo shocked the country not because it was unusual but because it was captured in a photograph that was widely disseminated.

For many, the photograph of the teenager — who was black — was also a powerful reminder of Brazil’s slave-trade past. The spot where he was found was just 3 miles from Pedra do Sal, once a slave market and now celebrated as the birthplace of Rio’s samba.

“We suffer a lot of violence and prejudice, and those with black skin suffer more,” said Claudete da Costa, who was a street child in Rio and now earns a living picking out recyclable materials from garbage cans. “We’ve seen this before, inside favelas, but it’s more visible when it happens in the south zone. There’s a lack of love and respect.”

As well as muggings on the street, there has been a return of arrastões, or “dragnets” — collective robberies carried out by groups of youths who sweep beaches in surprise attacks or gangs who target restaurants and bars. The thefts had been common in the 1980s, and the recurrence in recent months raised concerns that public security was worsening.

Such crimes were not meant to return. For five years, Rio has been undergoing a process of “pacification” in which special police units occupy communities. Security forces have been fighting an ongoing battle with defiant drug gangs, while in other areas traffickers have moved to other, less secure favelas.

But not all is going according to plan. Since the end of last year, there have been signs of gangs returning to their territories, causing gunfights to flare up. The pacification program was also damaged when 25 police officers in Rio’s biggest favela, Rocinha, were accused of torturing and murdering bricklayer Amarildo de Souza. He disappeared after being questioned in July, and his body has yet to be found. According to Amnesty International, police in Brazil are responsible for around 2,000 deaths a year.

Now the latest wave of vigilante attacks has given rise to fear that such rough justice could become normalized and may even lead to suspects being lynched.

More than 20 years ago, military police officers executed eight street children in the infamous Candelaria massacre in Rio.

Mello was first on the scene then as well. “The vigilantes are the most visible part of the discontent,” she said. “In the ’80s, there were many groups like this, and also death squads within the police. Now these groups, middle-class kids, are proliferating in the city. Today they chain people up on the streets; soon they will start to kill, and the state does not act. With the increase in violence, these gangs are likely to grow. Brazilian society cannot understand goodness anymore.”

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