Crime more than ‘public safety challenges’ for Rio 2016 bid

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A police officer escorts a man shielding a child and two other civilians trying to reach safety after police intervened in an April 2007 gun battle between drug traffickers in the Morro da Mineira shantytown of Rio de Janeiro, where 13 people died. Two similar incidents occurred in Rio this week. Photo credit: Ricardo Moraes / Associated Press)

About 24 hours before the International Olympic Committee’s release on Wednesday of its evaluation commission report on the four finalists to host the 2016 Summer Games, a shootout between police and robbers described as drug traffickers forced the authorities to shut down a main artery near Rio de Janeiro’s international airport for five to 15 minutes until gunfire stopped, depending on which newspaper report you read.


One major newspaper, O Globo, (the story linked is in Portuguese) said many motorists were forced to hide behind their cars or try to flee by making U-turns into oncoming traffic. The newspaper also said the suspects tried to throw a grenade at the police.

A day after the IOC evaluators’ report euphemistically called crime in Rio ‘public safety challenges’ that the city has addressed in a way ‘already showing positive results,’ the newspaper Folha reported that a gun battle between police SWAT teams cracking down on drug traffickers in a shantytown (favela) on Rio’s south side led to the closing of three schools and two child care centers as a safety measure.

Such shootouts, involving either the police and criminals, or rival drug gangs fighting each other in the favelas, are not uncommon in Rio. (For proof, put the words ‘tiroteio’ and ‘Rio’ into the search mechanisms of either Google or YouTube.)

Both supporters of Rio’s bid and Rubem Cesar Fernandes, founder of Viva Rio, a nongovernmental organization formed in 1993 ‘in response to the growing violence in Rio,’ maintain such incidents do not affect annual big events (Carnival, New Year’s Eve) in the city and rarely occur in areas frequented by tourists. That argument apparently held sway with the IOC’s evaluators.

As my colleague Alan Abrahamson pointed out in his blog on the evaluation report, the IOC language was dramatically different from what it had used for Rio in the ‘safety and security’ section of a March, 2008 working group report on the seven original 2016 bidders. The information in that report guided the IOC executive board in cutting the candidates to Rio, Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo.

This is what IOC said about Rio in 2008: ‘Crime in parts of Rio de Janeiro was considered to be an issue for the safety of people attending the Olympic Games. Should Rio be selected as a [finalist], assurances regarding protection and safety of persons traveling through certain parts of the city would be required.’'

For what they are worth, such assurances must have been provided for the IOC to downplay the issue of crime, which has not confined itself to ‘certain parts of the city’ over the months between the two reports.

The French newspaper LeMonde had a story last spring headlined ‘Panic at Copacabana.’ The story noted how the chic neighborhoods in the zona sul of the city went through three days of tension, including ’12 hours of panic,’ in what it called ‘urban guerrilla warfare’’ between police and drug traffickers from March 21 through 23.

Both U.S. rower Jamie Schroeder and U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling coach Steve Fraser can testify from their own frightening experience that safety is far from assured in even Rio’s iconic and highly touristy areas.

Before I go any further, though, let me offer this disclaimer to those who will suggest that, given my media affiliation, I am attempting to undermine Rio’s bid on behalf of Chicago’s:

Chicago can hardly boast of being a crime-free, nonviolent city. Some 57 Chicago schoolchildren died as a result of street violence in the last two school years, and 501 were shot during the same period. Gun violence kills hundreds of people in Chicago every year, and there has been a spate of recent muggings in the tony areas of Lincoln Park.

Each one of those crimes is a deep, ugly scar on Chicago’s reputation. Olympic athletes, coaches, officials and visitors would not be able to waltz around Chicago blissfully unmindful of potential crime, and they would undoubtedly be advised to avoid certain areas, day or night.

Yet, for better or for worse, the problems in Chicago have not escalated to levels where the police use armored cars, as they do in Rio, or where muggings are considered routine, as they are in Rio.

‘When I was living here [Rio] in 2004, I was assaulted three times,’' said University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor Chris Gaffney in an e-mail from Rio, where he is spending six months on a Fulbright research grant. ‘It eventually happens to everyone in the city, regardless of neighborhood.’'

It happened to the 6-foot, 8-inch, 220-pound Schroeder, a two-time Olympic rower, after lunch in the Santa Teresa neighborhood with his parents midway through the 2007 Pan American Games -- the biggest international sporting event in Rio’s history.

Recounting the incident Friday, Schroeder said two men pulled up on a motor scooter, and one held a gun at his temple before robbing the Schroeders of $500, three credit cards and cameras. He said he spent the final week of the Pan Am Games feeling ‘danger or paranoia,’' despite staying in areas designated as safe by U.S. Olympic Committee officials.

‘We still were allowed to be tourists, but they [the USOC] said they could not be responsible for us outside the designated areas,’' Schroeder said.

Wrestling coach Fraser, a gold medalist in the 198-pound class at the 1984 Olympics, fell prey to a seemingly coordinated criminal assault at dusk near his Copacabana hotel before the 2006 Pan American Wrestling Championships. The Detroit native blames himself for not using his well-honed street smarts during the incident, which ended when police found him unconscious on the street. [Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said it was a daylight incident.]

After talking with locals at a stand that served as a bar on the beachfront walk, Fraser went with them to another such bar down the street. They bought him a drink that apparently was drugged, since the next thing Fraser remembers was waking up 15 hours later in a hospital, where he would spend a week recovering from being beaten and robbed of a $17,000 watch he regrets wearing in a place like Rio.

‘If I were going to be out and about with friends during a Rio Olympics, I would be more aware of what is going on,’' Fraser said. ‘As much as I want the Olympics to come to Chicago, I wouldn’t be afraid to go back to Rio, and I think it would be safe if people were on their toes and follow smart safety procedures.’'

Rio clearly would have a massive police deterrent during an Olympics, just as it did during the Pan American Games, when two locals told me they had driven one of the city’s major expressways at night for the first time in years because it no longer was subject to crossfire from shantytowns on either side.

‘We have a history of big events in Rio, and usually they are safe, in spite of the criminal situation in daily life,’' said Fernandes, the Viva Rio director. ‘And we have had good news in Rio and Brazil in terms of a decline in the level of violence since 2004. It has been very pronounced immediately in Sao Paulo and more gradual in Rio.’'

Fernandes said the IOC report’s statement about the impact of a ‘new approach’’ to local policing refers to a program called UPP, or unit of pacifying and policing, which has combined police outreach as well as crackdowns in five Rio communities, with a goal of working in 40 communities by 2010. ‘That may be a bit too optimistic,’' Fernandes said, ‘but almost all new recruits are being used in that type of policing.’'

Schroeder, finishing medical school at Johns Hopkins University and work on a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the National Institutes of Health, would prefer empirical evidence of the policy’s effectiveness.

‘It seems their policing efforts may be of a vastly different scale than their crime problems,’' Schroeder said in an e-mail. ‘During the Pan American Games, the city was supposedly putting its best foot forward but ended up employing half-measures, like walling off neighborhoods and suggesting traveling only in `designated zones.’

‘If they have a new solution to try in their policing, as the statement indicates, I think it would be wise to have legitimate proof that it works before trusting it will keep the participants and spectators of an Olympics safe.’'

If safety were the main criterion, the 2016 Games should go to Tokyo, by far the safest of the four finalists. But basing the Oct. 2 choice of the 2016 host only on that would be as ill-advised for the IOC as writing a report that gives Rio a pass on crime based on the city’s plans and good intentions, which fly in the face of the gunfire that rent the Rio air before and after the report was released.

Bullet points are one thing; bullets are another.

-- Philip Hersh