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A Thin Veil of Beauty
Shrouds Reality in Rio de Janeiro

by Sam Logan
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

I live in Rio de Janeiro. It is the friendliest town in the world and arguably the most violent. You always see written in guide books and on signs in tourist-trap bars here that the locals call this place the “marvelous city.” I never hear anyone say it though. True, Rio de Janeiro is a beautiful place to live. But daily crime and violence may soon overshadow the beauty. Many claim it already has.

Marginalized for decades by the Brazilian State, impoverished masses live in the many slums or favelas that occupy the steep hillsides of Rio. They live in another world, a Hobbesian world. There is little other recourse but to live in a modern day fiefdom, where drug lords impose social order in exchange for silence and soldiers - a form of forced reciprocity according to Children in Organized Armed Violence Director, Luke Dowdney.

Drug lords use their money and influence to improve favela life, and many who live there are content with the help, even if justice for slight infractions is lethal and swift. Yet many who live in the favelas admit they rather live under the drug lords. In their eyes, honesty works in the favela, where as outside, politicians breed lies and corruption, and policemen shoot first, asking questions, if at all, later.

Daily favela “blitz” occupations, whereby civil police enter and take command of a favela, are executed like a military operation in this city. And the ensuing gun fights between the police and drug soldiers increase the odds of violent death, whether or not your corpse is found holding a gun or your child.

Why the favelas are both slums and battlefields is directly related to a well documented historical trend. Forty years ago purchasing a pistol, Uzi, AK-47, or grenade was not convenient or necessary for the masses here. Some people had weapons, but most did not. Over time, the drug trade and gang institutionalization produced a need for arms. Brazil is now a leading small arms importer in the world.

Simple economics then explains why drug dealers, thieves, and many working-class Brazilians, including taxi drivers, now carry a pistol. Automatic weapons are ubiquitous among gang members. Police retaliate in kind.

Hand guns, especially revolvers, are more available and cheaper than ever. According to a clandestine arms dealer, who lives in a favela here, 50 Brazilian reales (some $18 dollars) buys you a .38 caliber revolver. Such a low price mixed with a common mistrust of police results in a serious problem with small arms proliferation. Add extreme poverty, police corruption, a thriving arms trade and institutionalized criminal gangs, and you’ve got the core reason why Rio de Janeiro is such a dangerous place to live, especially if you live in a favela or work for the police.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s current president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has finally won the coveted post this past year. After eight months as Brazil’s commander in chief, Lula has managed to form a political coalition in Congress, practice prudent economics and meet some campaign promises. But crime in Brazil, especially in her cities, is a problem much more pressing upon the consciousness of all Brazilians, if not the Executive office. But more pressing is a lack of political will to generate a genuine social policy to improve life for those who live in the favela. But they gave up on the Brazilian government long ago and have chosen what is now known as the “parallel power” to maintain a social contract.

It seems Lula can do little to implement the social programs that might begin to change life in the favelas because he is too embroiled in political disputes over pension and land reform, and international trade. So until he and the rest of Brazil’s privileged politicians take a sincere approach to educate and employ Brazilians who live on the margins of society, the shadow of crime in this city will continue to block out the beautiful light that illuminates the beaches, and the eyes, of those who live here.

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About the author: Sam Logan is a freelance journalist living and working in Rio de Janeiro. As an American with over five years of life and experience in Latin America, Sam covers human security and social development stories in South America. He speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese and has lived in Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, Chile, and Brazil since 1998. Sam is from New Orleans, and is currently completing a Masters in International Policy Studies with the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.

Published in In Motion Magazine September 28, 2003