Facing crime wave, Brazil to deploy 85,000 soldiers and police to guard Olympics

By Dom Phillips

RIO DE JANEIRO — The officer stood at the door of the police base beside a basketball court in Prazeres, an impoverished hillside neighborhood. As Saturday afternoon melted into night, music played quietly in the distance.

The court used to echo with the sound of samba school ­rehearsals and children’s games. It had been the cultural hub of the favela, as these improvised communities are called.

Now the basketball court was silent and dark. Nearby, a member of a drug-selling gang patrolled an alley with an automatic rifle. A week earlier, gun battles had raged between police and a drug-selling gang in Prazeres, leaving three men dead.

Just two months before Rio hosts the Olympics, a much-vaunted “pacification” program in the city’s favelas appears to be crumbling, and a wave of violent crime is causing anguish among city residents.

The number of homicides in Rio state was up 15 percent in the first four months of 2016 compared with last year, although the figure dipped in May. Street robbery climbed 24 percent this year, according to the latest statistics, which run through April. And last month, the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in a Rio favela made headlines in Brazil and around the world.

facing crime-01A police officer patrols during an operation at Rocinha slum in Rio de Janeiro on May 20. A firefight between law enforcement and drug-trafficking gangs raged for hours in Rio’s largest slum, sowing panic among residents. (Felipe Dana/AP)

Authorities insist that the Olympic Games will be safe for visitors, with 85,000 armed soldiers and police officers guarding Rio’s streets.

But even the Rio state security secretary, José Beltrame, acknowledged problems with the growth in crime, which he blamed on a severe recession and a financial crisis in the state government.

“Without any doubt, the situation got worse in the last four months,” he said in an interview.

In 2008, a year before it clinched the Olympics, Rio state launched a“pacification” program in favelas long dominated by violent drug gangs. Police bases were set up in metal shipping containers — 38 favelas have them. Under the plan, the state would provide community policing, and federal and municipal bodies would supply improved transportation, education and other services.

But the Prazeres favela offers a glimpse of how the program has fallen short of its ambitions.