By Adriana Gomez Licon
RIO DE JANEIRO — On the eve of hosting the world’s largest sporting event, Rio de Janeiro’s decade-long push to curb violence in hundreds of slums appears to be crumbling.
Murders rose sharply in the first half of 2016, just as officials wanted to use the Aug. 5-21 Olympic Games to showcase the city as a tourist destination. Shootouts erupt daily, even in Rio slums where community policing programs created to pacify them had successfully rewritten the narrative in recent years.
The number of people killed by police, who many residents accuse of shooting first and asking questions later, has spiked in the past two years after dropping significantly the previous six. Police, in turn, are increasingly under attack: 61 have been killed in Rio since January, the majority while off duty.
“2016 has been a very bad year. We have seen a dramatic increase in homicides, robberies and other crimes,” said Ignacio Cano, a sociologist at the Violence Studies Lab of Rio de Janeiro State University. “We lost a big opportunity to transform police and develop a new public safety model.”
The victims are overwhelmingly young, black men like Jhonata Dalber Mattos Alves, a 16-year-old who was shot to death June 30 — family members say by police — in a slum with a much-vaunted community policing program.
Witnesses say the high-school student was killed as he walked down a dark path with paper bags for the popcorn he had fetched for his 4-year-old brother’s daycare party.
“I want them to pay for what they did. They ripped out a part of me,” said his mother, Janaina Mattos Alves, her voice breaking. “They are taking away innocent lives. That’s my fear.”
Law enforcement experts say Brazil’s worst recession since the 1930s is at the heart of the surge in violence in Rio. A financial crunch in the oil-producing state has put thousands of government workers’ salaries and pensions on hold, police budgets have been slashed and daily announcements of layoffs have added to the angst.
Rights groups additionally blame a culture of combat still at the core of much of Rio’s law enforcement, instincts more likely to emerge when officers feel under attack.
Cano says tourists coming for the Olympics will likely be spared the violence lived daily in the slums, though it periodically does spill into the city’s tourist-friendly and affluent south. The 85,000 soldiers and police assigned to patrol the streets is a force double that of the 2012 Games in London.
“The big question is not the Olympics but what comes afterward,” said Cano, who like many experts, believes that deeper cuts in police budgets are likely.
On a recent afternoon, two Associated Press journalists watched as half a dozen officers sheltered behind a cable car station shot it out with suspected drug traffickers in Complexo do Alemao, a sprawling cluster of slums in north Rio. Minutes after the gunfire stopped, several schoolchildren walked by the building as gun-toting police stopped and frisked drivers and bikers.
Amnesty International counted 265 such shootings last week, the first since launching a crowd-sourced app to help alert people living in violence-plagued areas.
The racial element of the violence is undeniable.
Black people are three times more likely to be killed by Rio police as whites, according to data from the state government’s public safety department. In the U.S. the apparent disparities in how police treat blacks and whites sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, which has organized large rallies after unarmed black men die at the hands police. The rate of police killings here is almost 10 times that of the U.S.
The mother of Jhonata Alves hadn’t heard gunfire the day she asked him to go pick up paper bags used to put popcorn from his aunt’s house in the slum of Borel. The family home is partly shielded from the slum by a forested hill, but the bang, bang, bang of clashes make their way to Janaina’s silent street on a regular basis.
A witness who would not show her face told Globo news station that after Alves was shot, police fired off bullets to fake a shootout. Residents that were in the area told the family that officers tried to plant a gun on the teenager, but they didn’t allow them to do it.
Police carried him as blood dripped from his head and put him in their car to take him to the hospital where he died. Police did not respond to a request for comment on the case.
A Human Rights Watch report released earlier this month found many instances of police killings that followed a similar pattern: Officers shoot at unarmed people, in custody or trying to flee, then simulate shootouts, plant guns and transport victims to hospitals where they arrive either dead or in critical condition.
Such killings, combined with the ensuing flimsy investigations and prosecutions, have dented the credibility of security efforts.
In the first five months of 2016, the number of killings that cover all homicides, including slain officers, shootings at the hands of police and as a result of robberies, increased by 18 percent to 1,870 in greater Rio, compared to the same months in 2012, when killings reached their lowest rates of the past decade.
Lt. Carlos Veiga, who leads the community police unit in the Babilonia slum, says police are under a lot of stress. The training of new officers has been cut from 12 to nine months and only two weeks are dedicated to explaining community policing.
“You are looking at a weak training program, police working under difficult circumstances, in places where people love breaking the law. All that adds up and makes the job of a cop very difficult,” Veiga said.
The Pacification Police Units, known by its Portuguese acronym as UPP, were created in 2008 to change that dynamic.
Police set up community stations in at-risk areas. They took over mazes of pathways run by gangs, removed weapons and gave residents some relative peace while integrating access to public services such as utilities and garbage collection.
Fabio Amado, head of human rights at Rio de Janeiro Public Defender’s Office, said the pacification units worked only in smaller, more densely populated slums. As the effort moved north and away from affluent areas and into sprawling hills, residents showed increasing dissatisfaction with police, according to a recent survey by Fundacao Getulio Vargas, a university and think tank.
A drug gang leader who recently spoke to the AP on the condition that his name not be used called the program a “facade.” He said drug dealers were initially worried and kept a low profile, but soon it was back to business as usual.
“Trafficking returned with even greater strength,” said the man, wielding an AK-47 assault rifle. “The UPP is powerless.”