McCormack Speaks

Rio de Janeiro and the Threats of Violence, Poverty, and Drugs



by David Matz, Professor Emeritus of Conflict Resolution

Brazilian favelaI have just returned from a one-week visit to Rio. The city faces the Atlantic Ocean, has gorgeous beaches, and is surrounded by quickly rising mountains. It is an excellent tourist destination with many great restaurants and upscale malls. I was accompanied (hosted) by my friend Liz Leeds who has spent much of her professional life working there. We spent most of our time talking with Liz’s friends who work, as she has, in public security, police reform, and community organizing.

In addition to the beauty of parts of the city, Rio’s most striking feature is its violence. It is everywhere, it is sharply increasing, and it is naturally on everyone’s mind. In the last year there have been 60,000 homicides in Brazil (population 210,000,000), and 90 murdered policemen in Rio. One ranking lists Brazil as #1 in violence.

Allow me to share a few of my experiences:-We walked two blocks at 7 p.m. in an upscale neighborhood to a restaurant from the apartment of friends; for the trip back at 9:30, our host suggested that “a cab would be safer.”

-Walking along the main road paralleling the beach, with restaurants and hotels to our left, Liz was aware of where on the sidewalk to walk and how to make or avoid eye contact.

-Anywhere in Rio, a driver keeps the windows up and the doors locked.

-One woman told of being caught in a shooting crossfire while driving from the airport.

-Buying tickets at a soccer stadium, we were told by a guard that the walk to the subway stop would be much safer if we went around the stadium to the right rather than to the left.

-Inside the stadium, there was a digital board that said there was a mediator on call, and a note at the bottom of the board flashed several times saying “Peace in Sports.” The spirit in the stands was much like that at Fenway: families, food, cheers, and groans. But ten days before, a fan for one team had been shot and killed by a fan from the other while leaving the stadium.

-One upscale restaurant had recently spent a lot to remodel. It sits on a hillside with a dramatic view of the city and the sea. It is in a neighborhood referred to as marginal. With the increase in violence, the restaurant has started offering free transportation to and from.

-We lunched with a young mother living in the same neighborhood who said she felt safe there, though she has only now allowed her 11 year old daughter to walk a block to the grocery store alone.

-We saw police, though not as many as I would have expected, perhaps they were there in plain clothes, but we were told that the government can’t afford more and is sending in soldiers to do the job.

Favelas in Brazil are poor neighborhoods. There are 1000 of them around Rio. As a number of Liz’s friends work in the favelas, we received several tours.  The streets are windy and narrow, the buildings are patchworks and crumbling. But you can see the efforts at fixing things up, the people carrying plastic bags to the dumpsters, the internet antennas, the home improvement efforts underway. The struggle between decay and renewal is enacted in each block.

The night before each of our visits, our guides advised us that their community media groups, using an app, said tomorrow should be safe for a visit. What data the informants used for such judgments I don’t know, but we saw no violence.

As we entered, our driver-guide (a professor) told us to roll down our windows. She drove slowly down the narrow streets, leaning out and greeting people effusively; some she knew, some not. What was important was that we were open and friendly, not strange white people sneaking into the community.  (Race and color in Brazil are important politically, with slightly different categories than in the United States.) Our guide pointed out a 17 year-old sitting on a motorcycle holding a very large rifle. “He is a drug lookout, and will report that we are here.” Drug sales were common and open on street corners.

Police can be defined as the problem (corruption, lack of training) and as overwhelmed by the problems. Political control of the favelas sits somewhere in the relationship among the drug groups, the police, evangelical churches, community organizations, the city government (the weakest of the groups), and perhaps individuals of respect.

Our guide, and others of Liz’s friends, work in community centers doing organizing, training, and counseling on all the issues you would imagine. The Rio government is broke, and many of the state and national leaders are in jail or on the way. So morale and hope for help from the government is just about zero.

We observed several presentations to foundations for funding for various projects. One pitch was made by a woman who had lived in a favela as a child, now has a PhD and heads an NGO working there. I heard from a couple of mothers and from community workers that it is usual that families want their children to get an education and then come back to the favela to help develop it.

On one of our visit days, the Colombian community was planning an open party. We met a man who though not born in a favela lived there now, had published several novels, and had come back to work there. That day he was an organizer of the party. “Organizing” meant getting the buy-in of the police, the drug groups, and various other favela leaders. His techniques were part community organizing, part mediating. His mediating seemed focused on finding a topic that two or more parties could agree on. The threat of violence hung over everything.

For the favela located near the city center, tourism and the city’s elite are a source of income; there used to be 14 hotels but with the rise in violence only two are still open. On a bright Saturday we ate at a very good restaurant (“Bar David”; I have a T shirt) with all tables full and many patrons waiting to get in.

We had dinner with a mediator who does mainly small-scale criminal cases. She has heard of restorative justice, but has had no contact with it. The police, she told us, also have mediators on staff for family and community disputes. She did not seem optimistic about what they could accomplish.

Fascinating visit. And very depressing.

The founding director of our conflict resolution programs, David Matz has expertise in strategies for practitioners to build trust in conflict situations, the integration of mediation into organizational and judicial systems, Arab-Israeli negotiations, and Sharing Jerusalem.




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