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

The police in Rio de Janeiro are cleaning up crime for the 2016 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 Wikileaks 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.


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.


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.


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.

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


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? Will the police retain a presence to keep out crime? Will the exploitation of young girls be stopped?

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