After a High-Profile Rape, Rio Cuts Vans Used by Its Poor

Rather than improving police accountability, the city inexplicably took away an important source of transportation.
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Giant photographs of women cover the walls of homes in favela Providencia in Rio de Janeiro on August 25, 2008. (Bruno Domingos/Reuters)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- After a Brazilian woman was raped by local van operators here, the police did nothing. When a tourist couple was kidnapped, beaten, and raped by the same men several weeks later, police apprehended the suspects quickly. Then the city used the incident to push through a change to transportation policy that gives the illusion of safety without addressing the real issues behind the crime.

This week Rio implemented a new ban on public transportation vans in the most-visited areas of the city, hurting the city's poor while doing nothing to impact attitudes about rape.

The details of the recent brutal kidnapping and rape of a foreign couple in Rio de Janeiro have been amply covered by local and international media, but the city's response suggests that rape here is simply not treated as a serious problem and highlights the reality that justice for the wealthy and the international here is dramatically different than that for the poor. The episode is yet another example of the way the focus on the upcoming Olympics is driving public policy in Rio de Janeiro. The city pushes real problems under the rug in order to maintain Rio's image and serve the needs of its foreign guests.

The city's response suggests that rape is simply not treated as a serious problem. And it's yet another example of the way the focus on the upcoming Olympics is driving public policy in Rio de Janeiro.

On March 30th, two foreigners were kidnapped after boarding one of the thousands of ubiquitous public transportation vans that crisscross Rio de Janeiro. They likely chose this van instead of a bus or taxi because the vans are dramatically cheaper than taxis but are seen as quicker and safer alternatives to the public bus system. These van companies originally developed to serve the poor favelas, home to millions of Rio's poor citizens. Long ignored or neglected by the formal system, residents built their own informal transportation network, which now has hundreds of routes and has been absorbed into the formal system.

The two tourists were headed to a popular nightlife area when they were abducted by the van driver and two accomplices, beginning a horrific journey during which the woman was raped by all three men and her male companion was beaten with a metal bar before the two were dropped at a bus stop on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.

By the time the shocking details began to be reported in the local media, two of the three perpetrators had already been captured. It appears the trio had been on an escalating crime spree starting with petty theft, then kidnapping, and finally at least two other rape-kidnappings before the incident involving the foreigners.

Several weeks before, however, a Brazilian woman was raped by the same men in the same van. She reported the assault to the appropriate authorities in the "women's delegation" of the police who did... exactly nothing. Miraculously, though, when these same men kidnapped and raped a foreign woman and beat her foreign boyfriend, the police apprehended the suspects in a matter of hours.

The officers responsible for ignoring the first report have been fired, but only after their negligence impacted Rio's international reputation. This second rape (and the all-important international attention) could have been prevented had they done their jobs in the first place. A third victim has now come forward, saying she, too, was raped weeks earlier by the same men but didn't go to the police. Is it any wonder given the treatment the other Brazilian victim received?

Presented by

David Lavin

David Lavin is the founder of XRE Global, a consultancy that supports businesses, international organizations, and social enterprises working in Brazil.

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