Gang rape gal­va­nizes Brazil as Olympics loom

SundayXtra - - OPINION - By Mac Mar­go­lis

THE dev­as­tat­ing Zika virus, en­demic cor­rup­tion and a fail­ing econ­omy: as if these were not mis­eries enough, now Brazil­ians are di­gest­ing the news of a bru­tal crime in the hills of Rio de Janeiro just weeks ahead of the Sum­mer Olympic Games.

This one was shock­ing even by Brazil’s out­size stan­dards. Last week, a 16-yearold girl was re­ported gang-raped in a hill­side favela, or slum. Some 30 men ap­par­ently took turns with the high school teenager, filmed the act and then posted their video on so­cial media. And all this took place just a short drive from some of the city’s gleam­ing new Olympics venues.

How, Brazil­ians and oth­ers asked, could such a vi­cious at­tack hap­pen in a city groom­ing it­self to host hun­dreds of thou­sands of in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors at­tend­ing the world’s premier sport­ing event?

But that’s the wrong ques­tion. Yes, the crime has fed the pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive about Brazil as a dam­aged coun­try and height­ened calls on Twit­ter and be­yond to can­cel or post­pone the Rio Games, as 150 health au­thor­i­ties pro­posed re­cently.

In fact, the real dan­ger — whether from felons or pathogens — is not to the coun­try’s flyby guests. Olympians and their fans will have scores of beat po­lice, anti-ter­ror­ist scouts and a fleet of medics and am­bu­lances on call to keep them from harm. They’ll likely have a grand time.

The larger con­cern should be about what hap­pens when the party’s over. There’s plenty of rea­son to doubt.

Al­though Rio launched an am­bi­tious crime-fight­ing strat­egy back in 2008, “paci­fy­ing” some 38 neigh­bour­hoods known to har­bour drug gangs, that cru­sade seems to be los­ing mo­men­tum.

Af­ter plung­ing sharply through 2015, homi­cides in the state of Rio spiked 15 per cent in the first quar­ter com­pared with the same pe­riod a year ago. Push­back from brazen drug traf­fick­ers is partly to blame, but tru­cu­lent polic­ing hasn’t helped.

For Brazil­ian women, the worry is mag­ni­fied. With 4.8 homi­cides per 100,000 women, Brazil ranked fifth in the world for femi­cide in 2013. While there are coun­tries in South Amer­ica where sex­ual vi­o­lence is more preva­lent, Brazil saw the sharpest in­crease on the con­ti­nent, with rapes jump­ing 171 per cent from 2003 through 2012.

In just the state of Rio, 4,725 women were raped in 2014, a 26 per cent in­crease from 2010, ac­cord­ing to po­lice sta­tis­tics.

For many women, how­ever, the crim­i­nal as­sault is only where the or­deal be­gins. The first po­lice in­spec­tor to hear the 16-year- old’s saga asked her what clothes she’d been wear­ing and whether she was in the habit of prac­tis­ing group sex. He also cast doubt on whether she’d been raped at all.

“It’s not my womb that hurts, it’s my soul,” the vic­tim re­sponded on so­cial media.

That’s when things started to hap­pen. Shaken by the vi­ral video of the crime and an­gered over the cal­lous polic­ing, pro­test­ers have hit the streets.

Sud­denly, the au­thor­i­ties stepped up; po­lice ar­rested two sus­pects in the case and are scour­ing the streets for oth­ers. A new in­spec­tor has taken over the case, and she wasted no time in de­scrib­ing the in­ci­dent as a rape.

A bru­tal crime, in­do­lent cops, blam­ing the vic­tim and then sud­denly snap­ping to at­ten­tion when the case blows up to be a na­tional scan­dal: it’s a fa­mil­iar story in Brazil.

Three years ago, Fer­nanda T. (she asked her full name not be used) told me how she was kid­napped, beaten and raped by three men in a van. When she went to the po­lice, she was kept wait­ing for hours be­fore a duty of­fi­cer got around to tak­ing her state­ment. The foren­sic ex­am­iner didn’t have rub­ber gloves. The in­fir­mary was out of HIV medicine. Then she went home to wait for the phone to ring.

The break came a week later af­ter a U.S. tourist was ab­ducted and raped by the same gang. Fer­nanda im­me­di­ately con­tacted the po­lice. By then, with the World Cup months away and a crime against a for­eigner to solve, the au­thor­i­ties were fi­nally lis­ten­ing. The chief of po­lice sent a he­li­copter to fetch her to take tes­ti­mony. The three at­tack­ers were sen­tenced to 49 years af­ter a re­mark­ably speedy trial.

“It took a crime against a for­eigner to get the po­lice to pay at­ten­tion to my case and then be­lieve me,” Fer­nanda told me when I phoned her this week.

Be­lat­edly, it seems Rio’s lat­est rape vic­tim may get the at­ten­tion she de­serves. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing death threats, she was promptly moved from her neigh­bour­hood and placed un­der a wit­nesspro­tec­tion pro­gram. How safe Brazil­ians will be when the world is no longer watch­ing is an­other ques­tion. Mac Mar­go­lis is a Bloomberg View con­trib­u­tor based in Rio de Janeiro. Pre­vi­ously, he re­ported on Latin Amer­ica for Newsweek and was a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the Economist, the Wash­ing­ton Post and For­eign Policy.


Women march dur­ing a protest Wed­nes­day against the gang rape of a 16-year- old girl in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

A pro­tester with a sign that says ‘Rape never more’ in Por­tuguese stands next to a po­lice bar­ri­cade.

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