During the Games, Rio was ‘the safest place in the world’. What happens now that they're done?
They’d had a few glasses of bubbly at the French Olympic pavilion, celebrating their respective triumphs in the pool. They were dozing at the back of the cab. The driver hit the brakes, jolting the swimmers out of their torpor. Then two men posing as police officers told the athletes to get down on the ground – and three of them obeyed. But not Ryan Lochte.
“I refused, I was like we didn't do anything wrong,” the swimmer told NBC the next day. “And then the guy pulled out his gun, he cocked it, put it to my forehead and he said, 'Get down,' and I put my hands up, I was like 'whatever.' He took our money, he took my wallet.”
The story of Lochte and his US teammates made instant headlines around the world. It confirmed the dim view those prone to quick judgement hold of Brazil, a country where politicians steal with impunity and armed assaults are routine stuff. And it came as a massive embarrassment to the authorities, who’d deployed 80,000 police and soldiers to make Rio “the safest place in the world”.
Except Lochte’s story was mostly bollocks. It took only 24 hours for investigators to establish that the champion had lied to everyone – including the police, his friends and his mum. Why exactly he did so remains unclear, and the real version of events is still fuzzy (it now seems the swimmers were caught red-handed by security guards whilst peeing on a corner shop).
“People got the feeling that he was treating Brazil like a banana republic”
Yet one thing is certain: Lochte lost a lot from this episode, including his victory glow and all his major sponsors. And his perceived arrogance hit a raw nerve among Brazilians.
“People got the feeling that he was treating Brazil like a banana republic, somewhere where you can do anything you want whenever you want,” says Rafael Alcadipani, an academic at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
For organisers, the #lochtegate – as angry tweets soon dubbed the affair – was all the harder to digest as Rio actually felt rather safe during the competition. The “disaster” everyone expected did not materialise, Alcadipani tells me. Authorities certainly left little to chance, mobilising a security armada twice the size of the one used for the 2012 London Games. Warships stationed near popular beaches; 23,000 troops patrolled the city.
“There was a tank under nearly every bridge,” says Xavier Colombani, a reporter at French sport daily L’Équipe. “And it wasn’t just to protect Olympic facilities. Around hotels as well, cars could only circulate if they had a badge. A vast part of the city was simply off-limit to many locals.”
These now wonder if violence will return once soldiers go back to their barracks. Rio wanted to put on a good show, but what happens when the show is over?
“In Brazil we have a phrase: ‘For Englishmen to see’. It refers to a time when the British Queen came here and officials decided to paint the grass to make it greener. It’s a metaphor for what happened during the Olympics: they tried to reduce all the problems to create an imaginary situation that’s not actually Brazil. But it was just a facelift,” says Alcadipani.
Even foreign visitors could sense the city was on high alert.
“I remember waiting an hour for a bus in the middle of the night, with just one other person,” Colombani tells me. “A police car stayed behind us the whole time. Maybe it wasn’t planning to move anyway. But maybe it was there specifically to protect us, because it had seen two Westerners in a neighbourhood that didn’t look extremely safe. It's fair to say that, during the Games, we were kept under glass.”
This glass did not prove completely shatterproof. On August 9, an Olympic bus carrying journalists was shot at halfway through its journey. Colombani was on board. “Officials said we’d been attacked by people throwing rocks. But the impacts happened at exactly the same time, on two windows five metres apart. I found it a bit hard to believe.” With a dozen buses taking the same route everyday – and 10 days of competition still to go – authorities probably weren’t so keen to recognise danger, he suggests.
Yet as often in Rio, the real tragedies happened away from foreigners’ gaze. On August 12, a soldier from a distant state mistakenly drove into Vila de João, a gang-controlled neighbourhood in Complexo do Maré, a favela. He got killed instantly, his vehicle sprayed with bullets. A punitive hunt for the suspects ensued, during which heavily armed troopers raided houses, helicopters flying overhead. At least five Maré residents died during the assault.
Such operations are not rare in Brazil. In 2009, when Rio won its bid to host the Games, authorities expanded an ambitious campaign to “pacify” favelas, launching onslaughts against criminal gangs that controlled swathes of them. Tanks rolled into shanty towns, while police officers started establishing a network of outposts inside their borders. Since then, 38 such stations have been installed throughout the city.
“They put up posters which spoke of apartheid and social exclusion - always in English so that foreign journalists would understand”
For a while, it seemed to work. “In the first two to three years, they were able to reduce violence, to de-escalate the presence of drug dealers. But then they run out of steam,” says Alcadipani. After years of decline, homicides increased by more than 7 percent during the first half of 2016 – a rise the academic partially attributes to the intensification of “clean-up” efforts in the run-up to the Olympics.
But there’s another cause: the city’s pacification project is running out of gas. Two months before the Olympics, the state of Rio declared a state of financial emergency, citing dwindling tax revenues and lower oil prices. The state invested R$8 billion ($2.4 billion; €2.1 billion) in public safety this year, R$2 billion less than originally slated. In March, the installation of one police outpost, at Maré, was cancelled.
The police’s eroding authority is matched by a rising sense of exclusion among Brazil’s poorest, the hardest hit by an 18-month-long recession. Colombani recalls a town of prefab houses next to the Olympic press centre, visibly made in haste to relocate residents unwilling to be displaced.
“All around our village they put up posters which spoke of apartheid and social exclusion - always in English so that foreign journalists would understand.”
That does not mean favela residents are now keener to embrace theft. When Portugual’s education minister got robbed at knifepoint in Ipanema during the first week of the game, locals helped police catch the suspect. But economic turmoil is inducing more people to cross the line: street assaults jumped 42 percent in May, to 10,000 muggings.
“The police in Brazil is very messy and the criminal justice system urgently needs improvement. But there must also be a new approach to the war on drugs,” says Alcadipani. “You need to change the way criminals emerge, by addressing social issues and creating opportunities for these young people. No one has done anything about that.”