Brazilians in solidarity.

Photographer: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

Charlie Hebdo and Rio's Victims

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Like most everyone else, Latin Americans were sickened by the attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo, and thousands of sympathizers poured into the streets across the region. But the small knot of protestors wearing white and distributing roses to motorists at a busy Rio de Janeiro intersection last Sunday were not grieving for Charlie.

Their vigil was for Alex Schomaker Bastos, a masters degree student in biology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, who was shot dead Jan. 8 in a holdup at a bus stop. "I Am Alex," their placards read.

If that sounds opportunistic, consider the context. Ethnic hatred in Rio de Janeiro is rare and religious fanaticism all but unknown. Tip the hologram, however, and a familiar monster emerges.

The bus stop where Schomaker was gunned down is a short walk from my home. The university campus where he studied is a pleasant shortcut to a nearby shopping area where I sometimes take my daughter for a treat. Alex Schomaker's mother and my wife work for the same company. Even in greater Rio, a city of more than 10 million people, I'm also Alex.

The storied satirist Georges Wolinski, slain at Charlie Hebdo last week, captured the awful promiscuity of Rio's violence in a visit here two decades ago.

Despite this recent incident, public safety in Brazil's signature city has actually improved. Since 2008, the slum occupation program has expelled heavily-armed drug traffickers from 40 favelas. The murder rate fell by half in just over a decade, according to the Map of Violence, published in November.

What happens in Rio matters to Brazil, which already has one of the highest homicide rates in a country not at war, and where lately violence is spreading to second-tier cities.

But "pacification" is facing its toughest test as the fight against crime falters, says Ignacio Cano, who monitors crime and violence at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. In 2013, some 4,761 people were murdered in the state of Rio de Janeiro, a 16 percent jump from the year before. That's more than one Charlie Hebdo per day.

Often the cops themselves are victims: 80 were gunned down in Rio last year alone. But they are also the problem. A battalion commander was sacked last week for inciting his troops to violence and texting Nazi-styled encomiums. Another was caught on his squad car camera firing wildly into the back of a speeding vehicle, fatally wounding a 22-year-old college student, apparently because the driver was wearing a flat-billed cap, favored by outlaws.

"We, your parents, write to you now to say we are sorry for not being able to protect you in a city left to fend for itself," Alex's parents wrote in an open letter today, in O Globo.

They are right to say that Rio's battle against violence has strayed. But it must be corrected, not junked. The nearly three quarters of Cariocas who voted last November to return Rio governor Luiz Fernando Pezao to office are counting on it. They are Alex, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net