Río de Janeiro bars poor black youths from its most famous beaches

Police arrest slum youngsters en route to Ipanema and Copacabana in bid to fight theft

María Martín
A group assault on a beach in Rio de Janeiro.
A group assault on a beach in Rio de Janeiro.Marcelo Carnaval (Agência O Globo)

Last weekend, military police prevented 160 youths from nearby slums in northern Río de Janeiro from entering the city’s famous Ipanema and Copacabana beaches.

The youngsters – all poor and black – were traveling aboard long-distance buses from their shantytowns to the more upscale southern part of the city. But they ended up on the floor of a police van even though they had failed to commit any crimes.

The police raid was conducted as part of an attempt to contain a fresh wave of group robberies, a practice that became common in the 1990s on Río’s beaches. But the strategy has triggered a new scandal over recurring institutional racism within Brazil’s police forces.

It is a sign of racism in Brazil, which is very common among the police, and it has the tacit approval of the people”

Juvenile court judge Pedro Henrique Alves and Eufrasia Souza das Virgens, of the Río de Janeiro Public Defender’s Office, which represents the nation’s court-appointed attorneys, said the arrests were “illegal.”

“The police can only detain a teenager if they are caught committing a crime or if there is a justified arrest warrant against them,” said Public Defender Eufrasia Souza das Virgens, who has opened a case against the state for moral damages.

While these events have alarmed part of the population, Río Governor Fernando Pezão defended the police’s actions. “Police intelligence has tracked the movement of these minors from the time they got aboard the buses. How many times have these minors carried out attacks? I am not saying it was all of those who were there [on the buses], but many of them, some of whom had already been arrested five, eight, ten or 15 times.”

The so-called arrastões, or group robberies in public places, have become habitual in Río during the summer months, staining the idyllic image that two of the world’s most famous beaches enjoy and threatening to mar the country’s 2016 Olympic Games.

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The thieves, some of whom have not even reached adolescence, use various methods to perpetrate the robberies. Some take cover in large crowds of friends, then pull away from the group and go around to catch bathers unaware. When they return to the group, they switch bathing suits with a friend and entrust them with their loot.

But the most surprising method – and the one that spreads panic among sunbathers – is the staged group fight: the thieves then grab everything they can in the ensuing chaos. The police end up rushing on to the beach with batons, hitting any young person they find, some of whom are not always among the guilty. The striking images of such interventions illustrate a violent game of cat and mouse, with hammocks flying about amid thousands of terrorized bathers.

Public Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame favors a progressive approach to law enforcement in a country that still maintains a militarized police force.

“The police were taking steps to prevent crime, but we have to tell people how vulnerable these youths are. We’re not talking about racism, we’re not saying that these kids were about to commit crimes. The point is, the freedom to come and go carries responsibilities. They took the buses without paying their fare. Some leave their homes, which are many kilometers away, without a proper meal and without any money. How do they expect to get back?” Beltrame asked. “What is at stake is the safety of these people.”

Brazilian police during an operation in Rio de Janeiro in October 2013.
Brazilian police during an operation in Rio de Janeiro in October 2013.Christophe Simon (AFP)

Meanwhile, security specialists and the Public Defender’s Office are asking why social workers are not the ones handling the situation instead of these armed men.

“It is an absurd, disastrous, scandalous action,” says anthropologist Luiz Eduardo Soares, who also served as Río’s security coordinator in 1999 and as the country’s public security secretary in 2003. “It is a sign of racism in Brazil, which is very common among the police, and it has the tacit approval of the people.”

Soares recalls how Río went through the process of opening its beaches to the general public in the early 1980s. Until then, these beaches were reserved for the white elite and residents of the favelas in the south.

“It was Governor Leonel Brisola who promoted public transport and beach access to youths from the most distant slums. This strategy democratized the beaches but it also provoked contempt among the racist middle classes, who punished the governor politically. Today, they cannot react the same way, there are laws against racism. That’s why it is surprising to see the same attitude. Black youths are always treated like suspects, which helps us understand – and this is worse than any robbery on a beach – why there are more than 10,600 deaths at the hands of the police, most of the victims being young, poor and black individuals from underprivileged areas.”

Translation by Dyane Jean François

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