Dreams for safer Rio fade a year before Olympics

Wed Jun 24, 2015 7:02am EDT
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By Stephen Eisenhammer

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - When shots rang out last month in the first gun battle in seven years between Rio de Janeiro police and drug traffickers in Santa Marta, its reputation as a peaceful slum with stunning views and a popular samba night was shattered.

No one was injured in the maze of alleys and steps of the "favela" that is home to 6,000 people, but the shootout raised concerns a police campaign - for which Santa Marta was the model - is running out of steam a year before half a million visitors arrive for the 2016 Olympics.

The shootout, in the wake of the stabbing deaths of a cyclist and a German tourist, sparked fears that after years of progress, violence was on the rise again in Brazil's postcard city.

"I'm worried things are going to go back to how they were," said Aldinho, who declined to give his last name for fear of repercussions, as he served beers from a stall on the lower steps of Santa Marta where the favela climbs a steep outcrop beneath the Christ statue.

Official figures support his view. Last year, the number of robberies in the city of Rio rose 25 percent, the biggest jump since records began in 1991. The trend continues, with a 10 percent rise recorded in the first three months of 2015.

Rising unemployment, low police morale and a growing sense of hopelessness among Rio's poor are contributing to greater crime, say security and development experts.

The trend is depressing for a city that strived to use last year's soccer World Cup and the Summer Olympics to make Rio safer. The 2014 World Cup staged in 12 cities across Brazil passed largely without incident after pre-tournament street protests and a security clampdown.

"The years when security improved were the years when the economy was booming, people's lives were getting better and they had hope," said Theresa Williamson, head of Catalytic Communities, a charity that works with favela residents.   Continued...

Members of the State Federation of Rowing and others take part in a protest against violence at Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, where a cyclist was killed the week before during a bicycle robbery, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in this file picture taken May 24, 2015. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes/Files