Perils at Copacabana Beach

by Mark on January 17, 2010

Imagine waking just before dawn.   The tip of the reddish-orange sun is barely breaking the horizon.   Across the street lies an absolutely gorgeous beach curving around a bay of emerald hills.   People are gathering at water’s edge enamored with the kaleidoscope of colors lapping on the shores.   You join them.   Back home there is at least two-feet of snow and grey skies.  It is a few minutes after six, but the temperature is approaching 70.   The crowd is quiet, almost spiritual, as the warm waves caress our feet.  About a half hour later the blazing sun clears the horizon, volley ball nets are going up and the assembly disperses.  An hour later I am in a suit joining my hosts for breakfast.   Upon hearing about my sunrise stroll, their jaws drop and a blend of surprise and fear creases their brows.    They immediately inform me my walk was extremely dangerous.  Too polite to call me an idiot, they leave no doubt I just survived a near-tragic experience.

Welcome to Rio de Janeiro, host of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.   Beneath the veneer of sheer tropical beauty is a society ground into object poverty and random violence.  It is not uncommon for Copacabana sunrise seekers to be robbed, harmed and sometimes murdered.   I was in Brazil visiting customers.   Two previous days in Sao Paulo provided a glimpse of the caution and security needed by visitors.    On the first day four colleagues and I were engaged in a mid-afternoon discussion within a business square beneath the shadows of skyscrapers.  One of the group stepped ten feet way to make a call.   Immediately someone shoved a gun into his stomach and opened his hand for the cell phone.   Wisely, my friend handed it over and the gunman scampered.    According to my hosts, had he hesitated to hand-over the goods, the gunman would have fired.   Why?   Many Brazilians live in shanties below the high rises and are hungry, desperately hungry. On the second night I became alarmed as our driver ran red lights in busy intersections on the way back to the hotel.  Why?  Stopping for a signal risks a carjacking.

My own experiences pale compared to the statistics.  According to the New York Times, Rio’s murder rate is the highest in the hemisphere, averaging 35 for every 100,000 citizens.  Local police are not soft on crime.  According to the Human Rights Watch, “. . .  a substantial portion of the 2,467 suspected ‘resistance’ killings in Rio State in 2007 and 2008 were unlawful, and that police officers were rarely brought to justice in the slayings.”    The two sides clashed in bloody style within 10 days of Rio being awarded the Olympics.   12 died in a gunfight, including two officers, as gangs shot down a police helicopter.  Brazil promises to pacify the situation, adding 3,300 officers in 2010 and another 4,500 the following year.

Rio is a Twilight Zone environment with spectacular scenery and bronzed bodies sharing the same sands as local terrorists.   The ‘Girl from Ipanema’ is probably surrounded by body guards.     The societal and poverty problems are likely systemic, needing more than armies of police bring peace to the Copacabana shores by the World Cup.     No doubt mega sporting events offer economic opportunities and country pride to Brazil.   There is hope hundreds of thousands of visitors will help Brazil overcome many of its challenges.   But let’s remember a totalitarian Chinese government was hard pressed to maintain order in the last Olympics.   So let’s pray that soccer and Olympic fans, gathering at sunrise on the shores of Copacabana, will enjoy the beauty and serenity while living to tell about it.

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