Rio rethinks slum tourism amid violence
RIO DE JANEIRO — As authorities in Brazil tackled crime earlier this decade, opening Rio de Janeiro’s hillside favelas to tourists seemed like a winning idea. The views are breathtaking, the slum residents could cash in, and foreign visitors would see another part of the city — not just Copacabana beach.
Now soaring violence in the hillside communities is rekindling a concern: Are favelas safe to visit?
Most famously depicted in the Oscar-nominated movie “City of God,” Rio’s favelas have long been known for drugs and crime. But the clusters of makeshift housing that run up Rio’s hillsides are also the birthplace of the city’s Carnival parade, samba music and street art.
As part of preparations that began in 2008 for hosting the Olympic Games, authorities pushed to make these once no-go areas safer by targeting ruling drug gangs. The current national economic crisis has exacerbated deep inequality and resulted in funding cuts for security forces, however, and authorities admit they have again lost control of most slums they once declared “pacified.”
“The question is very complex to simply say if it is safe or not,” said Marcelo Armstrong, who has been taking tourists to favelas for 25 years. “Depends where, depends what day, depends what circumstance. That’s the reality of Rio now.”
This year, Rio has seen an estimated average of 15 shootings a day involving police and heavily armed gangs. Hundreds of civilians, many of whom are residents of the favelas, have been killed or wounded in the crossfire.
A study conducted by the country’s National Confederation of Commerce and Tourism said the increase in crime was responsible for a loss of $200 million to Rio’s tourism sector between January and August of this year. In 2015, Rio made $5 billion from tourism.
Though tourists have occasionally been shot after accidentally veering into favelas, the recent death of a Spanish tourist at the hands of police put a spotlight on insecurity in Rio and its slums.
In October, police opened fire on a car carrying Maria Esperanza Jimenez Ruiz and her relatives as they left a walking tour of the city’s most populous slum, Rocinha, which has been at the center of a bloody battle between rival gangs and authorities.
For many favela residents, tourism is a lifeline in neighborhoods where formal jobs are scarce.
Soldiers stand guard in the Rocinha slum of Rio de Janeiro. Soaring violence in the city’s hillside communities is rekindling a concern: Are Rio shantytowns safe to visit?