Rowdy Rio's mayor tries Giuliani's get-tough tactics

Street vendors work near Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro.
Street vendors work near Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. Raphael Soifer/MCT

RIO DE JANEIRO — Suzy saw the white Municipal Guard van from more than a block away. Within seconds, she scooped her cheap sunglasses and gaudy plastic bracelets into an orange cloth, folded it and tossed it into her backpack.

Her sales counter, a metal grate balanced atop a cardboard box, went quickly against the wall of a pricey hair salon in Rio de Janeiro's beachfront Copacabana neighborhood.

Suzy, who was afraid to use more than her first name, is one of thousands of unlicensed vendors who work Rio's chaotic streets, clamoring for attention among street magicians, preachers, beachgoers and bewildered tourists, and now are struggling to survive a police crackdown. For 10 years in swank Copacabana, Suzy has grown adept at "disappearing" quickly, and she's always managed to make a living — until now. For the last three months, she said, "It's been hell."

That's the result of Shock of Order, a cleanup campaign modeled partly on former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's efforts in New York and initiated in January by Rio's newly elected mayor, Eduardo Paes. After decades suffering violent crime, a narrow majority of city residents voted in last October's elections to give the law-and-order candidate a chance.

Under Shock of Order, state military police have continued aggressive raids on the city's violent drug gangs and taken on local crime syndicates. The initiative has gained the most attention, however, for combating the small-scale infractions that are a way of life in Rio.

Shock of Order is intended "to end decades of omission of public policy in questions that most afflict the public," according to a statement released by Rodrigo Bethlem, Rio de Janeiro's secretary of public order.

Derision has greeted many of the operations, however. Bethlem attracted widespread scorn in late February when he personally oversaw the arrests of two teenagers who were caught urinating on a downtown sidewalk during the last day of Carnaval celebrations.

According to the daily newspaper O Globo, one of the teens was charged with an "obscene act" despite protests that the toilet facilities were insufficient for a procession that attracted 400,000 people. If he's convicted, he faces up to a year in Brazil's notorious prisons.

Vania Ferreira, a spokeswoman for Rio de Janeiro's state Military Police, had no comment. The police are just following orders from the mayor's office, she said.

Ana Carvalho, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Order, said that American "zero tolerance" policies were a big influence on Shock of Order operations. Raids on street vendors, she said, "combat visual pollution." She compared vendors to illegally parked cars, which the city has been towing with abandon since January.

In addition to towing cars, O Globo noted that the city's Municipal Guard had begun removing bicycles locked to city signposts, despite a public campaign to encourage commuters to ride bikes to bus and subway stops and a lack of public locking facilities.

Fernanda Kutwak, a social worker, remembers seeing four city vehicles obstructing traffic during a recent raid on street vendors. "The goals are valid, but the means aren't," she said, questioning what she called the "almost military" style of the operation to clear a sidewalk while snarling traffic in the process. Kutwak recently received a double-parking fine and said that she was likely to become "a bit more obedient," if only out of fear.

"It's cowardice," she said of the raids, adding: "The poor always get the worst." She pointed to recent operations to move homeless people off the streets, and said she doubted that local shelters could accommodate the sudden influx.

Ana Carvalho, the Department of Public Order spokeswoman, called homelessness a chief cause of "social and economic degradation." She said that Shock of Order was an attempt to "rescue citizenship," and dismissed rumors — scrawled on handmade posters throughout Rio's downtown — that Paes' program includes a return to the clandestine killings of street children that were common during the 1990s.

Suzy, the street vendor in Copacabana, complained that Paes claims he's helping the homeless while "trying to force me out of my house."

Since Shock of Order operations began, she said, she could barely pay her bills. "Where does (Paes) want us to live? In the favelas?" she asked, referring to the ramshackle squatter settlements that sprawl over Rio's steep hillsides. "The mayor says that he works hard. I work hard, too, but I can't even pay my bills. His table is full, but mine is empty."

Wellington Leao, an actor who works odd jobs and lives in the city's working-class North Zone, saw sinister motives behind Shock of Order. A militia that controlled local businesses and extorted money from residents, he explained, dominates his neighborhood. Leao, who voted against the new mayor, said he suspected that the city's government intentionally overlooked his neighborhood in exchange for support from local bosses. Paes "has strong people behind him," Leao said.

In Rio's downtown shopping district Saara, known for cheap imported goods and crowds of unlicensed hawkers, street vendors concurred. Ronaldo, who was hawking pirated software and DVDs and who also didn't want his full name used, said he'd lost track of the number of times that the Municipal Guard had beaten and humiliated him.

"Since Paes took over, it's been a lot worse," he said.

Kutwak, the social worker, complained about the "militarization" of Rio's streets. In early evening, gunshots occasionally echoed from the favela that's across a small valley from her spacious apartment in Santa Teresa, an upper-middle-class neighborhood near the city center. Kutwak wasn't optimistic about future Shock of Order operations, but she contented herself with remembering past initiatives.

"It always repeats," she said. "After two and a half months, disorder will reign again."

(Soifer is a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs who's studying the relationship between the arts and social change in Brazil. An actor, director, playwright, musician and theater educator, he holds a bachelor's degree in theater studies and anthropology from Yale University.

(The Institute of Current World Affairs is a Washington-based foundation that provides long-term fellowships to young men and women for self-designed study and writing programs in foreign countries. Founded in 1925, the institute has supported more than 150 fellows, many of whom have gone on to play leading roles in journalism, diplomacy, academia and other fields.)


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