Crime in Rio Gets Even Worse, Just in Time for the Olympics

Rio Police

Police watch as a new Light Rail passes by in Rio, on June 5, 2016.

Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images
  • Muggings rose 14 percent city-wide from January to May
  • Athletes from Spain, Australia have been mugged at gunpoint

Brazil’s list of pre-Olympic woes is getting longer. In addition to a political system in chaos, an economy in crippling recession and a public health crisis around Zika virus, new data suggests petty crime in Rio de Janeiro is on the rise.

Muggings rose 14 percent city-wide from January to May, according to the most recent data. In parts of the city, it’s been much worse: The region that includes downtown business district is reporting a 26 percent increase in street crime. In and around the Copacabana beach area, it’s up 44 percent.

Rio has long been notorious for purse-snatching, pick-pocketing and mobile phone theft. More than 48,700 muggings took place in Rio last year, nearly three times the number reported by New York, which has 30 percent more residents. A slew of YouTube videos capture some of the brazen muggings that take place downtown on a regular basis.

Olympians have not been immune, and recent assaults have brought new attention to the city’s crime. A group of Spanish sailors were assaulted at gunpoint while they were training on-site in May. The Australian Olympic team called on the Rio 2016 organizing committee to increase security for athletes after a pair of Paralympics athletes were mugged in June.

For a story about the Olympic tourism outlook, click here.

The authorities have promised to protect the expected influx of hundreds of thousands of Olympic visitors by putting 85,000 police and military personnel in important corridors, venues and tourist areas. Soldiers in camouflage fatigues have already been stationed at places like the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, where rowing events will take place and a known target for small-scale criminals.

It’s less clear how they will guarantee the safety of those who wander off the beaten path and Cariocas who live outside Olympic areas.

"Paradoxically, the situation may worsen" for some locals, said Robert Muggah, a security analyst at the Igarape Institute in Rio de Janeiro. "We’re going to see a significant police redeployment from some of these hot-spot areas."

Petty crime aside, Rio is a far less violent place than it used to be, and one of the Brazil’s safer cities when it comes to violent crime. The murder rate in the state capital dropped by about half to 18.5 per 100,000 people in the last decade, making it safer, statistically speaking, than New Orleans or St. Louis.

The drop corresponded in part with an economic boom that lifted tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty. It also coincided with the rise of a program of aggressive policing in the the poor, hillside communities known as favelas. Those efforts often resulted in violent confrontations between gang members and police, and the program, known as pacification, has been losing popular support amid concerns about police brutality. A Human Rights Watch report last week said police in Rio state have killed more than 8,000 people in the past decade, many of them in the informal settlements.

"We need real political courage to take on structural reforms," said Muggah, the security expert. "Public security is a holistic exercise. It requires a huge investment in prevention, as well as law enforcement."

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