A Rape in Rio Becomes An Excuse to Gut Services For the Poor


After a Brazilian woman was raped by local van operators in Rio de Janeiro, the police did nothing, but when a tourist couple was kidnapped, beaten, and raped by the same men several weeks later, police apprehended the suspects quickly. Then the city used the incident to push through a change to transportation policy that gives the illusion of safety without addressing the real issues behind the crime.

This week Rio implemented a new ban on public transportation vans in the most-visited areas of the city, hurting the city's poor while doing nothing to affect attitudes about rape.

The details of this recent kidnapping and rape have been amply covered by local and international media, but the city's response suggests that rape here is simply not treated as a serious problem and highlights the reality that justice for the wealthy and the international is dramatically different than that for the poor. The episode is yet another example of the way the focus on the upcoming Olympics is driving public policy in Rio de Janeiro. The city pushes real problems under the rug in order to maintain Rio's image and serve the needs of its foreign guests.

On March 30, two foreigners were kidnapped after boarding one of the thousands of ubiquitous public transportation vans that crisscross Rio de Janeiro. They likely chose this van instead of a bus or taxi because the vans are dramatically cheaper than taxis but are seen as quicker and safer alternatives to the public bus system. These van companies originally developed to serve the favelas, home to millions of Rio's poor citizens. Long ignored or neglected by the formal system, residents built their own informal transportation network, which now has hundreds of routes and has been absorbed into the formal system.

The two tourists were headed to a popular nightlife area when they were abducted by the van driver and two accomplices, beginning a horrific journey during which the woman was raped by all three men and her male companion was beaten with a metal bar before the two were dropped at a bus stop on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.

By the time the shocking details began to be reported in the local media, two of the three perpetrators had already been captured. It appears the trio had been on an escalating crime spree starting with petty theft, then kidnapping, and finally at least two other rape-kidnappings before the incident involving the foreigners.

Several days before, however, a Brazilian woman was raped by the same men in the same van. She reported the assault to the appropriate authorities in the "women's delegation" of the police who did ... exactly nothing. Miraculously, though, when these same men kidnapped and raped a foreign woman and beat her foreign boyfriend, the police apprehended the suspects in a matter of hours.

The officers responsible for ignoring the first report have been fired, but only after their negligence impacted Rio's international reputation. This second rape (and the all-important international attention) could have been prevented had the police done their jobs in the first place. A third victim has now come forward, saying she, too, was raped weeks earlier by the same men but didn't go to the police. Is it any wonder given the treatment the other Brazilian victim received?

In recent public comments , Rio de Janeiro State Governor Sergio Cabral stressed that the rape was "an atrocity," but asserted that it was "not a common practice." Most of his comments concerned Rio's image abroad. "The international press has very responsibly stressed that this is not a common practice in our city. The world's thought leaders know what is happening in Rio in relation to violence," he said.

The governor cited a number of statistics highlighting Rio's improved security, and he's right that violence in Rio has declined dramatically. He did not cite the rape statistics, though, perhaps because reports of rape have increased more than 23 percent from last year. While this is undoubtedly partly a result of greater reporting and awareness, as well as an improved security situation, sex-crimes are anything but "uncommon." While this crime was a gruesome outlier, the governor's comments demonstrate that his concern lies more with the "world's thought leaders" than with Rio's victims of sexual assault.

Other than the firing of the negligent police officers, the city's other reactions to the crime have been tone-deaf. They initially mandated that vans no longer be allowed to have tinted windows, which seems like a reasonable response. Then came the municipal decree that as of April 15, vans would no longer be permitted to serve the southern zone of the city, including the all-important beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. The city's intent to implement this ban had been quietly announced in December, and the city used this crime to further justify the policy under public safety grounds.

Hundreds of owners and operators will lose income. Thousands of locals will be negatively affected, but since thesemostly poorer Brazilians work in (but do not run) the establishments that serve Rio's tourists, their access to the corridors of power is limited. This response really has very little to do with the public safety issue at hand. Imagine if this crime had been perpetrated by a taxi driver — ould the mayor have banned all taxis?

One only has to look to the van drivers' competitors to see the true motives for the new ban. The powerful bus companies who for years refused to serve the favelas are now suffering from the popularity of these vans. Vans cost less, have faster and more varied routes, will drop off customers wherever they choose, and late at night when buses are often nearly empty, vans feel safer because they are filled with workers headed to the suburbs after a long day. But with transportation and mobility a major issue in Rio, and one that will continue to be pivotal in Rio's ability to handle its coming mega-events, Rio's bus companies wield a great deal of power. They've been pushing to take these vans off the streets for a long time, under the guise of easing Rio's notorious traffic. The bus companies and the city took advantage of this tragedy to push the measure through, all behind the façade of public safety.

This new policy diminishes the area's transportation options, further dividing the rich and poor and putting more power in the hands of the already powerful bus lobby. It does nothing to addresses the real problems of public safety, violence against women, or police accountability that have long plagued the city.

This article originally appeared on TheAtlantic.com. (C) David Lavin 2013