Brazil’s No-Blame Game: How Impunity Imperils the Country’s Image

A lack of accountability casts a shadow on Brazil’s preparations to show off its progress with the World Cup and the Olympics.

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Nacho Doce / REUTERS

A cap hangs from a cross alongside highway BR-163, also known as the Highway of Death, in Lucas do Rio Verde, Mato Grosso state, Brazil, Sep. 28, 2012.

As Brazil prepares to play host to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, it has much to show off. The country has reduced poverty and inequality at unprecedented levels; and it has been lauded the world over by a media in thrall to its dynamism, its natural beauty and its undisputed charms.

But two shocking episodes of violence, yet another case of mismanagement by its sporting bodies, and several episodes of deadly traffic madness–all made worse by a sense of continuing impunity enjoyed by the alleged perpetrators of crime and mismanagement–have come as a reminder that all is not rosy in South America‘s biggest nation.

In São Paulo, eight police officers are being held in a city jail in connection with the investigation into the cold-blooded killing of two youths. In Rio de Janeiro, a 21-year old American woman was brutally raped and her partner was beaten by three men who kidnapped them in a minivan used for public transport.  Meanwhile, the city’s mayor was forced to close the new stadium that will host the track and field events for the 2016 Olympics because the roof is in danger of collapse. And last week, a bus that was allowed to continue running in spite of having 47fines for traffic violations careened off a viaduct killing seven people onboard.

The events are more than just graphic illustrations of how life is cheap in Brazil. The other common thread is impunity and a lack of accountability. Death squads persist in São Paulo; Rio police ignore rape reports; bus drivers keep driving in spite of repeated fines; those responsible for organizing one vastly over budget sports event are allowed to organize another. “We are accustomed to punishing only the poorest and that has been the case though Brazil’s history,” says Felipe Santa Cruz, president of the Rio branch of the Brazilian Bar Association. “It is getting better. (But) we still don’t have a culture of obeying the law. Some parts of society have no fear they will ever be punished.”

(MORE: Rio 2016: Track and Field Venue Closed Indefinitely)

The front page headlines have been a huge embarrassment for Rio, little more than a year before it holds the World Cup Final and three years before it hosts the Olympics. Life in the self-appointed “Marvelous City” has gotten better in recent years, thanks largely to a mayor who took a leaf out of New York’s book and cracked down on petty crime. Indeed, it is no longer a place where anything goes. But citizens still complain that too much does.

The root of the problem is two-fold, says Fabricia Ramos, a researcher with the Institute for Studies on Labor and Society,  a Rio think tank. Most glaringly, public services are insufficient or inefficient.

They can function for the elite when they need them but the poor – and the areas they live in – are treated with disdain, she said. There are few ways to complain and those responsible are rarely held accountable. Ramos cited as one example a new city hotline set up to help citizens to resolve everyday problems. The city says 1-in-5 of the calls leads to direct action. But Ramos says a more common outcome is frustration. “You call this number if there is a car parked illegally on your street, or a manhole cover is missing, or if part of a building looks like it is going to collapse,” she says. “But you are at the mercy of the city. If they want to ignore you they can and there’s nothing you can do. Accountability is the big challenge.”

(MORE: The Stadiums of Rio: Why They Are Not Yet Ready for the Olympics)

Such initiatives are a step in the right direction but there is still a feeling of one law for the rich and another for the poor, says Ramos, and that exacerbates the sense of helplessness. One week before the American woman was raped, a local girl reported a similar incident but police failed to properly investigate. The same people were apparently responsible for both crimes, police later acknowledged, and they removed the officers who failed to investigate. “The rapes exposed a devastating inequality,” Ramos said. “A girl was raped but because she comes from a poor neighborhood the police did nothing. And then when an American is raped they find three guys within 24 hours. That is a hard message for people who live here to swallow.”

The lack of accountability is even more evident in the sports world. Carlos Nuzman, the man who organized the 2007 Pan American games and now in charge of organizing the 2016 Olympics, has not commented on the debacle of the stadium closure, much less been called to account for it. Nuzman has always maintained the Pan American Games venues were built to Olympics specifications and that superlative quality was the reason the games went six times over budget.

Now, however, two of those venues, for cycling and swimming, have been found to be so substandard they cannot be used for Olympic events, and a third, the athletics stadium, was last week closed because engineers said the wind could blow the roof down if gusts topped 63km/h.  The city now is now rushing to get ready for the Olympics, the World Cup and the Confederations Cup, which will take place in June.

The world will come to Brazil and no doubt be delighted by the warm climate and friendly hosts. But they are unlikely to be impressed by the infrastructure around them. If the games don’t go according to plan, Brazilians will have no one to blame but themselves. Just don’t expect anyone to be held accountable.

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