Rio’s Dirty Little Secret – Human Rights and the 2016 Olympics

May 24th, 2011 by LaRae Quy
Children in Bangladesh Slum

Image by United Nations Photo via Flickr

The police in Rio de Janeiro are cleaning up crime for the 2016 Summer Olympics, but some human rights activists remain wary.

Rio has a dirty little secret. They are called shantytowns and they are infested with drug gangs and other violent crime. Tourists flock to the city’s sophisticated nightclubs and warm beaches but they are warned to stay away from the violent areas that surround this beautiful city.

As a former FBI counterintelligence Agent, I am concerned about the national security risks raised by the U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks. As a proponent of social justice, however, I am alarmed by the front row glimpse they provide of the clean up efforts in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics.


The Wilileaks cables make it clear that U.S. diplomats in Rio de Janeiro are anxious about the 2016 Olympics—but not for the reasons normally associated with international athletic events. Since the 1972 Olympics in Munich, we’ve become aware of the need for tightened security measures. Diplomatic cables between countries participating in these events is routine—except the messages coming from the U.S. diplomatic corps in Rio de Janeiro are not worried about acts of terrorism during the 2016 Olympics.

Instead, they speculate on how Rio is going to keep the polished image of a sophisticated playground for tourists away from the crime and violence on the hill that overlooks the stadium where the 2016 Olympics will be held.

Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon.

Image via Wikipedia

The Good, The Bad, And the Ugly

Never have two worlds collided in such sharp contrast. The publicity brochures of Rio feature a playground of beautiful people in trendy cafes, children laughing and playing on the beaches, and svelte models wearing white swimsuits while strolling along breathtaking boulevards with exotic names.

Above the luxury and wealth of the Rio that Brazil wants the world to see, is a war zone of urban slums. These shantytowns are known as favelas. They lack an education system for their children, no social services, and, until recently, very little police protection. Although favelas have been around for years, it appears that the 2016 Olympics have motivated the police to crack down.

According to the cables, the Pacification Police Unit (UPP) launched a program one year ago in four of the smaller slums. They’ve eliminated drug trafficking and started providing basic services like electricity and trash pick-up. The local residents of the slums where the gangs have been pacified support the UPP presence because the climate is more secure. There are far fewer homicides since the arrival of the UPP.

This is great news—but the real story is that there are over one thousand favela slum areas in Rio. The work has just begun.

slum rehabilitation scheme

Image by BEN+_+ via Flickr

Test Case

A small slum called Dona Marta is receiving a lot of attention as a test case for the Pacification Program. The shantytown climbs a steep hill directly above the Botafogo area of Rio’s affluent South Zone. The maze of improvised brick and plywood buildings spread along twisting and narrow paths is home to 15,000 residents.

The UPP occupied the Dona Marta favela in December 2008. The Pacification Program model, resembling U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, is this: clear, hold, and build. The residents were told that the UPP were coming in and coming to stay. The leaked cables indicate that most gang members fled and that the gang leader who ruled the slum for years was arrested. His house, in fact, has been turned into a police station.

People are afraid that the police will leave after the Olympics. The gangsters have not moved away—they have simply moved underground.

Human Rights Violations

By the looks of it, the clean-up program has initially focused on those areas near wealthy areas and future Olympic sports venues. Human rights organizations are critical because many of the shantytown residents are now facing eviction to make room for the Olympics.

These same human rights organizations are also concerned that Rio officials and the UPP are removing them by force because the slums occupy valuable real estate for Rio’s growing, and changing, urban landscape. If this is true, rather than concentrating on cleaning up crime in the slums, the real motivation is simply moving the problem away from the wealthy areas. This strategy also flies in the face of Brazil’s housing rights legislation.

The most vulnerable victims are the children. They are often exploited and left with few, if any, educational and employment opportunities.

Another dirty little secret in the slums is the epidemic of incest.  Social workers assume that if a girl reaches the age of twelve, she’s either being abused in her home or forced into prostitution. Most of the abuse comes from their mother’s boyfriends or stepfathers. Sex with girls over the age of fourteen is legal. Even if they are victims of incest in the home, it is considered consensual.

Watch this video for a more in-depth story

The hands of social workers are tied. In this broken system, the exploitation of young girls is both heartbreaking and inevitable.

Now What?

While the UPP can clean up the slums, other services and projects need to come into the areas as well. The police cannot do it all. Rio State Security Secretary Jose Mariano Beltrame acknowledges there is a pressing need for additional civilian agencies and NGO support to come in and provide assistance with bringing infrastructure into the slums.

Without public assistance and humanitarian efforts to help build up the slums, the drug gangs will return.

As 2016 gets closer, will the hundreds of slums overlooking the Olympic stadium be cleaned up, or just relocated? How will humanitarian efforts help stop the exploitation of young girls? How can your voice be heard?

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2 Responses to “Rio’s Dirty Little Secret – Human Rights and the 2016 Olympics”

  1. Kate Lyra says:

    I have spent a great time thinking about this before finally deciding to make a comment. I find the title, “Rio´s Dirty Little Secret” both patronizing and ignorant. It is as if one would say, in reference to the myriad inner cities and project communities in most large U.S. cities as “America´s Dirty Little Secret.” In fact, this second title would be far more applicable to America.

    Brazil — and Rio — have never denied that they have favelas. Nor have they ever hidden the problems which derive from this situation. It would certainly behoove those interested in moving forward a film project on any aspect of this subject to become better informed. There is an enormous amount of Brazilian literature on the subject, which has been examined to exhaustion by academics, public policy makers and by famous favela dwellers themselves.

  2. Marcos says:

    After reading your article, I want to let you know I support everything you wrote and I totally agree with you. And the point is, there are much more to say.

    I think you perfectly synthesize what Brazil, and especially, Rio de Janeiro are all about. Actually, a country I feel like writing with lower cases instead of upper cases. Brazil is way behind many Third World countries, and needless to say, the education level of Brazilians are only 53rd in the world rank. And this is the same level of Zimbabwe, a nation, which, the unemployment rate is like 95% against the 6.8% today in Brazil. But don’t forget. This unemployment rate is just a current situation becausof the Olympic games. Things have always been much worse than that.

    The problem is, Brazilian governors, such as former President Lula (who is a semi-illiterate), current President Dilma Rousseff, as well as, State Governors, like to maximize their propaganda abroad. But the point is, almost everything is a lie in this country.

    Now, about Rio de Janeiro. If you spend just one day around this town – and notice, I’m not even talking about the outskirts, the favelas, etc., where things are much worse – you will see boys and girls (most of them pregnant) on almost every square, every traffic light, taking drugs, robbing passersby, cursing, and much more horrible things. You will see men urinating on the streets, street vendors selling pirated products, having the police just beside them, and not to mention, homeless people and those taxes (the highest in the world) people have to pay to have no education at all, no health care at all, no security at all, no paved streets, not anything they need. In fact, justice and law enforcement in Brazil are a joke. However, Brazilians are stupid people. They laugh (most of them with no teeth) because they have Carnaval, samba, beaches and soccer. They are really, really stupid. People who won’t think about growing, succeeding. They’re stupid, dirty and poor, and they like that.

    Brazilian governors lie, and now they’re spending a fortune just trying to hide all of this and because of the Olympic games they will host, something I could never understand how they achieved. Because of this, they will, and they are, spending a lot of money, building stadiums, hiding beggars and homeless people… and pretending they’re pacifying the favelas. Actually, the criminals, the drug dealers, just ran away from Macacos and they’re still giving orders. The truth is, once the Olympic games are over and the World Cup too, Rio de Janeiro and the rest of Brazil will be the same they’ve always been. The Third, poor and stupid World country. Everyone knows, it would take at least, hundreds of years to change Rio de Janeiro’s situation. Much more than Olympic games. Trust me.

    Congratulations, and please count on me, for anything you need.

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