A weekend of mob robberies on Rio’s beaches saw some Zona Sul residents attempt to take the law into their own hands. But the “crime mobs”, the vigilantes, and the social divisions that underpin them are nothing new, as James Young explains.
By James Young
Despite the start of the summer season and the giant Rock in Rio music festival drawing flocks of foreign and domestic tourists to Rio de Janeiro, the beaches of the Cidade Maravilhosa were reportedly quieter than usual this weekend.
Perhaps it was because of the overcast weather. More likely and more troublingly, however, it was due to the events of the weekend before. Then, images of gangs of shirtless young men, swarming across the sands of Ipanema, Arpoador and Copacabana, stealing cell phones, cameras, jewellery and wallets, were beamed across the country. In total 61 people, many of whom were minors, were apprehended.
Following the chaos, the police brought forward the start of its Operação Verão (“Operation Summer”) stop and search operation for buses coming in from the periferia (Rio’s distant, working class suburbs) with over a thousand police officers and social workers manning 17 check points on the main access routes to the beach neighbourhoods this weekend.
With many of those involved in the robberies below the age of legal responsibility, the authorities are keen to stress the social care aspect of their operation. “What the police were trying to do was related to the vulnerability of the individuals. If a minor leaves home, 30 or 40 km from the beach, dressed in just his bathing suit, with no bus fare or money for food or drink, then this person, in my humble opinion, is in a situation of risk,” Rio de Janeiro Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame told Brazilian TV.
Nonetheless, the idea of stopping and searching thousands of largely poor, generally dark-skinned Cariocas from the Zona Norte suburbs as they attempted to access the more affluent tourist areas of Zona Sul was a troubling reminder of the financial and social abyss that separates Brazil’s haves and have nots.
Some, including Eufrasia Souza, Coordinator for the Defence of the Rights of Children and Adolescents of Rio’s Public Defender Service, have criticised the idea of detaining people who have committed no apparent crime, and talked of a “social apartheid“.
While an expanded welfare system, economic and social development and an increased minimum wage mean much progress has been made towards greater equality in Brazil in recent years, Rio’s beach wars seemed like an echo of the problems and prejudices of the past.
Os Pobres Vão Á Praia (“The Poor Go to the Beach”), a documentary broadcast on the TV Manchete (“Headline TV”) channel in the 1990s, showed the unvarnished reality of what it was like to make the long journey from Rio’s poor outer suburbs to the beaches of Zona Sul – complete with often rowdy passengers surfing on top, or climbing in through the windows, of heaving buses.
More compelling viewing than the discomfort of the journey (accompanied by the song Nós Vamos Invadir Sua Praia (“We’re Going to Invade Your Beach”) by the band Ultraje a Rigor), however, is the reaction of the better-heeled Brazilians in the documentary.
“They’re uneducated, you can’t take people out of…the swamp and take them to Copacabana. I can’t be around people who have no education…You have to charge entry…you can’t put someone well-dressed from Ipanema, someone educated…and put them in the middle of people who aren’t educated, who are rude, who are going to eat farofa and chicken…you’d die of disgust, it’s horrible,” says one appalled young woman. “It’s horrific that they’re from my country…they’re not Brazilians, they’re a sub-race,” she continues, as the words scenes of explicit prejudice flash on the screen.
The Poor Go to the Beach was reposted on YouTube on 27th September, a few days after the beaches of Rio had been invaded once again, albeit at times in a more criminal, violent fashion. “You can see that nothing has changed in Rio. We made programmes about arrastões (“crime mobs”), the war between the classes, all these phenomena, the battle against the drugs trade, police corruption. Some people think that all this started today, but it’s been like this for dozens of years and the documentary shows that,” said Nelson Hoineff, the director of the Documento Especial series, of which the programme was part.
But the arrastões were perhaps not even the most troubling story of Rio’s violent weekend. That came later in the afternoon, when reports emerged of groups of men, mainly from Zona Sul gyms and combat/martial arts clubs, forming vigilante gangs and going off in search of the enemy – namely young men or boys from the poorer suburbs.
“We’re looking for kids in cheap flip-flops, who look like they haven’t got R$1 in their pockets,” said one of the vigilantes. “It’s obvious that they’re here to steal,” said another, Antônio, a shop worker from Copacabana. “If they want terror, we’ll give them terror. It’s self-defence.” On at least one bus, passengers were forced to smash a window to escape the justiceiros (“vigilantes” in English – interestingly, the word vigilante in Portuguese usually means security guard).
Such vigilante action has becoming alarmingly common in Brazil in recent years – or else it has always been there, but has simply become more visible in the smartphone and internet era. In February last year a 15-year-old boy was beaten, stripped naked and chained to a post in the Flamengo neighbourhood of Rio, while 29-year-old Cledenilson Pereira da Silva, suspected of robbing a local bar, was also stripped naked and tied to a lamppost before being beaten to death in São Luis in the northern state of Maranhão in July this year. Similar incidents have been registered in other parts of the country, from the state of Espirito Santo, adjacent to Rio de Janeiro, to Piauí in the north-east.
Such actions reflect many of the issues that trouble Brazilian society – the fear that one may become a victim of crime, in a country where there are over 50,000 murders a year; the loathing of criminals and, by association, the social groups from which it is assumed they come; and the sense of both impotence and rage that stems from the inability of the police or government to do anything about the problem.
The culture of justiceiros has sparked much debate. “It’s shocking to see a scene as deplorable as this in 2014. It’s barbaric. If he’s a criminal, arrest him,” said Rio resident Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, who found the boy chained to the lamppost in Flamengo last year.
Many have taken a different stance, however, including Rachel Sheherazade, the anchor of the “SBT Brasil” news programme on one of Brazil’s biggest TV networks. “This counter-attack is what I call the collective self-defence of a society without a government, against a state of violence without limit. And for the human rights defenders who took pity on the little thief chained to the post, I launch a campaign: do yourself and Brazil a favour – adopt a criminal.” The comments sections of articles about such cases, meanwhile, are inevitably filled with Bandido bom é bandido morto style messages – “the only good bandit is a dead bandit”.
Rio’s beach justiceiros, meanwhile, are nothing new. “S”, a 45-year-old Copacabana resident and former Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter, described the situation in the 1990s to Vice Brazil. “If there was an arrastão, we’d retaliate, and obviously we’d kick their asses, because the kids from the periferia couldn’t handle a team of 20 or 30 trained fighters. But we weren’t vigilantes. It was self-defence.” The name for such fighters at the time, according to Vice, was “pit-boy”.
The economic divisions, fear and loathing of social classes other than one’s own, “crime mobs” and vigilantes that underpin and surround Rio’s beach violence, then, are nothing new. While Brazil has made some progress towards a more equal society in recent years, it seems there is still a long way to go.