Rio shrugs off crime question in Olympic bid

Updated: September 19, 2009, 1:04 PM ET
Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO -- A police shootout with criminals stopped a commuter train and sent passengers fleeing for cover. Officers conducted a drug raid on a slum, keeping 2,000 children out of school. Police got into gun battles that killed more than a dozen suspected traffickers.

All this happened in early September, during the same week that the International Olympic Committee released a report giving generally high praise to Rio's bid for the 2016 Games.

It was hardly an unusual week in this city of 6 million, where major highways -- including one that links the international airport to key tourism beaches -- are periodically shut down by shootouts.

Whether such a town should host the Olympics shapes up as a key question heading into the IOC's vote on Oct. 2 in Copenhagen, with Rio positioned as a strong contender against Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo.

"I can look each Olympic committee member in the eye and say: 'Don't worry, because if there is a secure place to host the Olympic Games, that place is Brazil, it is Rio de Janeiro," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio da Silva said recently.

While the IOC evaluation report noted the city's security problems, the reviewers and the Rio bid committee downplayed risks in a city that has hosted countless major events without catastrophe -- including the world-famous Carnival, a drunken and generally peaceful week of revelry that draws 800,000 people annually. And Rio itself is a huge, year-round international tourist destination.

"Public security won't be the issue that will determine the rejection or acceptance of the city's candidacy to host the 2016 Olympics," Brazil's Justice Minister Tarso Genro said Thursday, adding that officials are more concerned about Rio's ability to provide enough hotel rooms and adequate public transportation.

"The violence problems that we're facing aren't foreign to other cities," he added.

As much as Rio's crime makes splashy headlines, the violence typically stays among the poor in the slums, where Olympic delegations and tourists won't go.

And Silva argues that his nation has always been immune from one of the biggest crime concerns for the games: international terrorism.

"We don't have attacks, we don't have bombs," Silva said.

The IOC seems convinced that Rio's $14.4 billion Olympic budget would provide great games and embrace the Olympic spirit by propelling the city forward with ambitious infrastructure projects used long after the last gold medal is won. Also, South America is seen as long overdue to hold its first games, and Brazil is the continent's undisputed emerging nation.

The IOC evaluators concluded in their report released Sept. 2 that Madrid and Chicago are "capable of providing the level of security and safety required for the Games."

Rio alone was singled out as facing safety challenges, though the report praised Brazilian officials for reducing crime and adding community policing programs.

The city's homicide rate dropped to 33 per 100,000 people last year from 39 per 100,000 the year before, and authorities expect the rate to continue falling despite a homicide spike from April through June.

While last year's rate was the lowest in 17 years, it is much higher than the rate for Rio's competitors. Chicago's was 18 per 100,000 in 2008, up from 16 a year earlier. Madrid's was flat at 2 per 100,000 for both years, and Tokyo's was 1 per 100,000 both years.

Asked about Rio's crime rate, IOC president Jacques Rogge told The Associated Press: "We know about the challenges of each one of the four bid cities. At the same time, we know that these things can be controlled."

Tim Cahill, the Brazil researcher at Amnesty International, says it's too early to tell whether Rio's new community-oriented crime-fighting programs highlighted in the IOC report will be effective.

One federal program, Pronasci, launched large-scale social projects in poor neighborhoods and improved policing two years ago. A new state program started this year sends officers into the slums to clear out drug gangs and stay put to maintain order, instead of pulling out as they normally do.

Rio Gov. Sergio Cabral, who oversees city and state police and is major figure in the Olympic bid, said the IOC report proved the committee's confidence in Rio.

"What we want for 2016 isn't just security for the Olympic family -- journalists, athletes, directors, tourists. What we want to arrive at in 2016 is security for all inhabitants of the city," Cabral said.

But the state program has only been tried in five of more than 1,000 Rio slums. Officials say it should be in place in 100 shantytowns by 2016.

"The IOC report recognized these measures that have been in place to create a calmer environment in the city," Brazil's Sports Minister Orlando Silva told international correspondents on Friday. "And not only because of 2016, but for the good of Rio citizens and the city's visitors."

The new programs, however, "are not a fundamental policy shift," Cahill said. "So outside the chosen corners these projects occur in, the old policy continues in place."

Rio's most common policing method consists of slum invasions by officers well-seasoned in urban combat. They frequently engage in shootouts that wound or kill innocent bystanders -- a tactic heavily criticized in a U.N. report last year.

Another complicating factor is the spread of vigilante militias often composed of police and former police who wrest control of slums from drug gangs, giving residents safety but extorting them for protection.

The Olympics would take place mostly in upscale areas where violent crime is not common, though it does sometimes spill over from hillside slums near pristine beaches. Tourists are subjected to muggings and petty crimes but rarely anything more.

Rio still manages to host major international events every year, from economic conferences to a New Year's celebration that draws more than 2 million people to Copacabana Beach, and the world's biggest Carnival party.

Despite major security concerns ahead of the Pan Am Games held in Rio 2007, crime dropped with the deployment of 15,000 extra police, helping Brazil win soccer's World Cup for 2014.

"The experience of the Pan American Games was wonderful," said Silva, the Brazilian sports minister. "And the Olympic games, like any other great event, will also receive this special additional effort."


Contributing to this report: Associated Press Writers Marco Sibaja in Brasilia, Brazil; Tales Azzoni in Rio de Janeiro; Alan Clendenning in Sao Paulo; and Stephen Wilson in London.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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