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Rio 2016: Brazil celebrates the Olympics that its desperate, crime-ridden streets can so ill afford

There have been 756 such shootings in the city in July. Ian Herbert speaks to one victim, Vitor Santiago, who had his leg amputated after being shot by Brazilian army officers

Ian Herbert
Rio de Janeiro
Friday 05 August 2016 16:23 BST
Rio residents celebrate the arrival of the Olympics but it is an occasion which is unlikely to benefit them greatly
Rio residents celebrate the arrival of the Olympics but it is an occasion which is unlikely to benefit them greatly (Getty)

There is no disguising what is heading Brazil’s way and how, in the legendary land of Carnival, the people wish to embrace it.

The early stirrings of hope that the jewels in the Brazilian Olympic team – footballers Neymar and Marta – might have something special in store had turned the newspapers into messengers of delight here.

Brasil estreia com vitoria na Olimpiada ("Brazil opens Olympiad with a victory") screamed the front page of O Globo after the women footballers beat China 3-0. They are rigging up televisions sets to watch the Games in places that do not have them.

And they are preparing to become familiar with names they never knew. Like Marcus Vinicius D’Almeida, the 18-year-old archer and son of this city, who is seen as one of great hopes of a nation which has never really been Olympian, despite its population of over 200 million.

The Brazilians see the other fables which are waiting to be written across the Rio de Janeiro sky, too – perhaps by Katie Ledecky, the 19-year-old American swimmer who, by dint of nothing more than an outsized lung capacity, might well sweep all aside.

Perhaps Caster Semenya who, freed from the restrictions of taking hormones to limit her testosterone levels, could run 800m in 1:53. Nicola Adams, seeking to make history by retaining boxing gold. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, bowing out of Olympian competition.

Any one of these, or others, may do incredible things in the 17 days which lie ahead. It’s why we have been given such an effusive Brazilian welcome in the past 72 hours. There are cavalcades of buses deployed to overcome the awkward fact that the two main Olympic centres are half an hour apart.

There are purpose-built, gated accommodation blocks built for journalists, with the sentries who are dotted around them all night testament to the fact that we are close to the other side of the tracks. It is chaotic and, Brazil being Brazil, there is well-intended chaos.

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No pane of glass has been put into the window next to the gas boilers in the accommodation block, the host explains, so that the flames will blow outwards if the device sets on fire. The security stations are so understaffed that the queues snake longer than the distance Semenya runs some mornings.

But what should really embarrass the International Olympic Committee's chauffeur-driven executives, on their $900 daily allowance here, is the testimony of such individuals as Vitor Santiago, who articulated what the Olympics mean for the very many dispossessed of Rio de Janeiro.

Vitor Santiago speaks to reporters in Rio on the eve of the Olympics (Amnesty International) (Ian Herbert)

He is from Vila do Pinheiro, one of the myriad settlements within the Mare favela, in Rio’s North Zone, where he describes a public health system lacking the basic accoutrements and often running out of supplies on a daily basis. The education system fails boys the most, he hastens to add.

That Mr Santiago should list these as a priority for investment says much about him, given that he arrives to talk in a wheelchair and wears shorts which are designed to cover the deep and unsightly scarring to his right leg, caused when army officers shot at him in the favela 18 months ago. His other leg was so severely damaged that doctors amputated it.

The last I remember is an officer running across, screaming to me to get out of the car

&#13; <p>Vitor Santiago</p>&#13;

The 30-year-old has no movement from the waist down because a second bullet hit him near the spine. He had spent the kind of evening that most young men in this city enjoy before his world crashed in, in February last year. He watched the Flamengo football team play a match on TV in a bar with a friend who was down from the Amazonian city of Manaus.

They were returning home to Vila do Pinheiro, with Mr Santiago in the passenger seat, when they were stopped at one of the many army patrols set up in the favelas. The car was waved through, its occupants having no criminal record to cause suspicion. The shooting came randomly and suddenly, perhaps 10 minutes later, from a concealed patrol. “I’d lived in the community for 30 years,” Mr Santiago tells me.

“You read the signs that tell you there are problems between the gangs and the army and to steer clear. You know when you should go to ground and vanish. I don’t know where the shooting came from or why. The last I remember is an officer running across, screaming to me to get out of the car. But I’d been hit twice and was in too much pain to do that. I fell out of the car in the end.”

Amnesty International revealed this week that Mr Santiago’s experience is part of a deeply embedded pattern.

There have been 756 such shootings in the city in July and a 103 per cent year-on-year increase the number of killings in Rio's favelas between April and June. Police in the city killed 49 people in June, 40 in May and 35 in April – more than one every day. Poke a little at the surface exterior of this, the so-called Cidade maravilhosa, and you will discover how the hopelessness of millions – and the indifference of the state – has allowed this indiscriminate death to take hold. It began when gangs of organised criminals fed off the destitution to take control in the favelas.

Security patrols were sent in to work against drug dealers who feed off such places as Mare. But gradually, they became rulers of their domain, extorting money from residents for water, gas, property sales, illegal satellite TV signals and protection. “The message is clear: those who do not pay up cannot be secure,” one source told El Pais Brazil recently. “The ‘militiaman’ tries to represent the state in the slums.” You question the legitimacy of this shadow state if you dare.

When the Rio newspaper O Dia attempted to so in 2008, two reporters and a driver were tortured by a group of militiamen. The Rio state government sent heavily armed troops into 38 favelas to evict drug gangs that year, though the legacy of the decision is the occupation of favelas by trigger-happy officers, intent on keeping order rather than forging relations with communities.

Mr Santiago is part of the collateral damage. One social worker in the Complexo do Alemao favela told last week’s Economist that the police should now leave the favelas, letting the drug traffickers return. It would be easy simply to celebrate the sport and say that this dysfunctionality would go on just the same.

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But the amounts being invested in the Games while such squalor exists all around are obscene. Never in Olympic history has there been such an embarrassing juxtaposition of largesse and rank poverty. The shiny new metro out to the meet Mr Santiago was almost entirely empty as it shot through the newly hewn subterranean created tunnels towards the Ipanema beach. The western world frets over what water the marathon swimmers must endure while in parts of the city there is not a serviceable sewerage system.

Parts of the place simply stink. The direct economic benefits of the Olympics are desperately slim. The little community of Morra da Cruz in the city of Porte Allegre, featured in The Independent two years, ago has been sent left-over timber from the construction of the Velodrome – and they’re grateful. Mr Santiago shared in a conversation about the Brazilian women’s team. “China, 3-0,” he said, showing tentative signs of the English lessons he has been offered since his ordeal.

Captured by Brazilian documentary workers, it has contributed to wide swathes of Brazil demanding this army of occupation be withdrawn and the killings stop. He was planning to watch Neymar play for the men’s team, too.

And to watch some athletics. And then the Olympic caravan will move on, leaving large swathes of Rio to come to terms with the destitution they told us these Games and the 2014 World Cup Brazil would wash away.

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