If you tapped your feet on the floor to the sound of the drums, enjoyed the music and dancing, and Pelé’s brief appearance during the handover of the Olympics to Rio at the Closing Ceremony, that’s all understandable. But don’t get too excited yet.
For most Brits and others around the world, the man who collected the flag on behalf of Rio de Janeiro, its Mayor, Eduardo Paes, was just another suited politician, smiling to the camera, doing his duty for his city and country. He seemed nice, didn’t he?
Well. Let’s go back four years to 2008, when Eduardo Paes was running for office, and Rio was facing one of its most violent times in the last couple of decades.
Photo: Wilson Dias/Abr
A few years before I left Brazil for the UK in 2007, there had been something brewing under the surface in some of the biggest favelas in Rio. A kind of violence different than our usual drugs lord-led gang conflicts was quietly erupting. Groups of police officers and firemen, some retired, some still active, united to take the law into their own hands.
Armed and dangerous, they formed militias and started taking over favelas, killing and scaring away drugs lords and their gang members. They claimed they were cleansing Rio’s communities from filthy drugs and drug addicts.
All they wanted in return was the support of the communities – which were eventually taken hostage of what had become a money and power-hungry mafia. Militians started charging extra money for basic utilities, such as gas, drafting up “voting lists” ahead of elections and barring candidates from campaigning in their area. They were also involved in “alternative transport” – vans with the same itinerary as buses – and charged autonomous workers a “toll” for working the same itinerary as their fleets.
Those who didn’t comply, received death threats.
In 2008, my old newspaper, Jornal O Dia, sent three of their staff, a reporter, a photographer and a driver, undercover, to a favela in order to expose the actions of these militias. Unfortunately they were found out, captured, tortured and are, to this day, running away from corrupt police officers unhappy with their attempt to expose them.
Unfortunately, Paes, a social-democrat from centrist PMDB (Partido do Movimento Democratico Brasileiro), has been caught more than a few times, having a too-close-for-comfort relationship with the militias.
Three months before elections, in 2008, he gave an interview to TV Globo, justifying the work of militias in certain areas of Rio, saying they brought peace to a handful of communities. The video is in Portuguese, but here’s a translated transcript of his statement:
“There are situations and situations. There are areas of the state (of Rio), where the state has completely lost its sovereignty and we need to recover this sovereignty. I’ll give you an example, because people always ask me how to recover this sovereignty. Jacarepagua, in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a neighbourhood where the so-called ‘policia mineira’ formed of policemen and firemen brought peace to the community. Sao Jose Operario Hill. Once one of the most violent favelas of this state, is now one of the most peaceful. Vila Sape, in Curicica… it means that acting with intelligence you can get the state to recover its sovereignty in these areas.”
In 2011, newspapers got hold of a picture of Paes having a meeting with the leaders of “alternative transport co-operatives” - some of them known to be militians – soon after he took office. It had been taken in 2009, when, according to Jornal do Brasil, he guaranteed the group would have “preferential treatment” during the procurement process for new itineraries in Rio’s West Zone.
Photo: Reproducao/Jornal do Brasil
Some of those who attended the meeting were being investigated by a parliamentary inquiry commission (CPI das Milicias), but Rio’s department for transport issued a statement saying even though they were under investigation, they had not been convicted or found guilty of any impropriety at the time. It went on to say if they were to be found guilty of impropriety they would be excluded from the procurement process.
But there’s more. In 2010, a Rio assembly man denounced during the parliamentary inquiry that Rio’s head of social care, Rodrigo Bethlem, appointed by Paes, was the main defence witness in an attempted murder trial, where two militians from the self-appointed “Justice League” (Liga da Justica) were accused of trying to kill a van “conductor” who had acted as a whistleblower, in 2005.
Bethlem, who worked for the governor of Rio at the time, was at a “political event” with both militians when the crime happened. The trial was delayed when Bethlem allegedly refused to give evidence, after being exposed as a witness by the press. He was subsequently dismissed as a witness, because the judge wanted to get on with the trial to avoid wasting more public money. And he is still Rio's head of social care.
The parliamentary inquiry (CPI das Milicias) was led by a politician called Marcelo Freixo, who eventually succeeded in sending to jail dozens of militians and exposing several corrupt politicians and policemen who had links with criminals.
Following the inquiry, Freixo received death threats and had to leave Rio with his family for a while. He is now fighting Paes for mayoralty. Elections are due to happen in October.
If you would like some context for all this (I appreciate it’s hard to understand if you haven’t lived in Rio or aren’t familiar with Brazilian politics) I suggest two films: Elite Squad, based on a real story, and its sequel, Elite Squad 2 - the Enemy Within, inspired by these events I’ve just written about.
Bottom line is, don’t be fooled by Paes’ pearly white smile and his excitement with the Olympics. For the sake of Rio’s population, and all of you who are coming to Rio in 2016, I sincerely hope he’s on his way out.