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The anger of Rio's have-nots

In the wake of the pope's vist, Al Jazeera's Gabriel Elizondo finds a city still struggling with its divisions
Last modified: 3 Aug 2013 04:33
Police patrol a Rio favela

This week I wrote that the city of Rio de Janeiro should be commended for what I believed was a fairly successful hosting of nearly 3 million people on consecutive days for the visit of Pope Francis. 

More than 2 million tourists visited Brazil to see Pope Francis, and a survey out this week says over 90% of them want to return to Rio.

But there is another side to the city, one that you won’t find in the tourism board flier, one that won’t get as much international media attention as the pope’s visit. Rio is a city of extremes, a place seemingly always taking three steps forward, two steps back, four steps forward, six steps backwards.

Often hidden behind the postcard images of Ipanema, Rio feels like a city always teetering on the precipice, where the ‘haves’ are inoculated in bubbles of privilege and $12 caipirinhas, while the ‘have-nots’ slog a through a daily struggle: crammed into buses on their way to work, fighting to survive to make it home every day - just to repeat it all again.

It’s like that in any city - Delhi, Chicago, Mexico City. But in Brazil the contrast is starkest in Rio.

On Tuesday, just a little over 24 hours after Pope Francis left, a water main ruptured in the suburb of Campo Grande. It was a massive breakage, spewing a canon of water into a low-lying, working class, neighborhood where many of Rio’s bus drivers, maids, cooks and construction workers live. The people that make the city run. Isabela Severo dos Santos, 3-years-old, was killed. Over a dozen flimsy brick homes were destroyed, over 100 people pushed from their homes due to flood damage.

Rio’s governor Sergio Cabral, and the mayor Eduardo Paes, visited the destruction and offered solidarity with the victims. They were booed as they left.

Anger, marches, questions

And then there is the Amarildo case, as it’s now being called. That refers to Amarildo de Souza, a 43-year-old construction worker and father of six.

He lives in the Rocinha shantytown, recently occupied by Rio police and installed with a UPP – or police pacification unit from the community policing force. 

Amarildo, by all accounts, was a pretty solid guy. His family says his job was to haul heavy sacks full of sand for construction up the steep hills in the shantytown. He’d lug 25 bags a day to the top, and make about $40 dollars, enough to feed his family.

But on Sunday July 14 police from the local unit took Amarildo in for questioning. The reasons remain unclear.

And he has not been seen since.

Police say they let him go and don’t know what happened to him afterwards. But speculation is rampant that perhaps some rogue officers did something bad to Amarildo. His wife thinks he might be dead.

It doesn’t look good for the police. The closed circuit cameras in Rocinha, controlled by the police, were inexplicably turned off the day he disappeared, as was the GPS on the police vehicle that transported him.

Residents of Rocinha are protesting - loudly - and the case of Amarildo has taken on national significance and even has the potential to ignite more anger in Brazil.  There have been marches in Rio and Sao Paulo demanding answers from the police and Governor Cabral, who is practically begging protesters to halt a sit-in in front of his condo in Leblon.

One week in Rio de Janeiro: A dead baby who shouldn’t be dead.  A missing man who shouldn’t be missing.

Three steps forward, three steps back.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter: @elizondogabriel