Corporal Daniel da Cruz is 31 and a member of Rio de Janeiro’s military police. I met him on Sunday afternoon at a funeral in western Rio. He was burying two of his friends.
Marcos Macedo and Edney de Oliveira had died the previous day, when drug traffickers from one of Rio’s 1,000-odd favelas shot down their helicopter during a violent turf-war that has made headlines across the globe and raised questions about Rio’s ability to host a safe summer Olympics in 2016. A tough-looking father of one, Corporal Cruz stood next to his friends’ graves and wept.
I asked Cruz what inspired him to go on working as a policeman, in a city where nearly 90 of his colleagues have been killed this year.
“My daughter is six. One day I’ll die but she’ll stay here, living in Rio de Janeiro. So I want a Rio of peace,” he replied. “I want a Rio of peace so that you guys who come from overseas don’t think that all we have in Rio de Janeiro is pornography and violence. This isn’t true.”
He’s right, of course: this isn’t true. Rio is one of the most culturally exciting cities on earth and one of the most physically beautiful. Rio is home to a resurgent film and television industry and the base of Petrobras, one of the world’s fastest growing oil companies, which has just discovered huge oil resources off the south-eastern coast of Brazil.
Last Friday night, as all hell was breaking loose in one small corner of northern Rio – exactly 0.7 per cent of the city, according to one Brazilian news channel – I was just a few kilometres away at a samba club, blissfully unaware of the gun-battle that was raging between rival traffickers. I spent the evening talking to Isnard Manso, a talented Brazilian choreographer and the owner of the Centro Cultural Carioca, one of Rio’s best music clubs, about his excitement at the investment and attention Rio’s Olympic victory would bring the city.
But when the military police helicopter was shot down on Saturday morning, just two weeks after Rio was handed the 2016 Olympics, so too was the idea that Rio represented anything but death and destruction. Rio – apparently the whole city if you believed some commentators – was transformed into a war zone.
“Brazil violence ignites Olympic security fears,” claimed one Associated Press headline. “Rio hunts chopper attackers, fearful for Olympic image,” reported AFP.
One Rio de Janeiro newspaper went even further, stamping the headline “Rio at War” onto its front page, alongside pictures of the burning helicopter in which Corporal Cruz’s friends had died.
Journalists here do wear bullet-proof vests while working in the favelas, many of which are controlled by heavily armed and deeply angry young drug traffickers. Members of Rio’s police force are now so scared of assassination that they cruise around the city in their cars with 9mm pistols perched on their laps, safety catches off. Each year Rio’s police kill around 1,000 people “resisting arrest”. There are around 6,000 homicides each year in Rio state and certain parts of town can, occasionally, feel like war zones with the sound of automatic gun-fire crackling through the air.
But will this prevent Rio from holding a peaceful Olympics? Almost certainly not. Apart from the fact that most of the violence is sporadic and largely restricted to the city’s slums, Rio de Janeiro has already proved it can handle major sporting events without tourists finding themselves caught up in night-long gun-battles.
The last big such event was the 2007 Pan-American Games. Thousands of members of a national security force were deployed in the city’s more problematic areas and, apart from the odd brush with a pick-pocket or mugger, most visitors left utterly unmolested.
Should we be shocked that at least 21 lives have been lost in one weekend and that two of those men reportedly had their ears chopped off by drug traffickers? Of course. But should we be so scared that we deprive Rio de Janeiro of an opportunity to bring in a much-needed dose of investment and attention? Absolutely not.