Rio’s mayor has a plan he believes can tame this chaotic city, which is both beloved and loathed for the cacophony of sins that reach their apex during Carnival.
His method: a “shock of order” campaign in which even the smallest of offenses will be punished.
His model, apparently, is former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose crackdown on petty crime was credited by many for a remarkable drop in serious crime in the 1990s.
His chances of success in Rio: nil, according to most observers.
After all, how can a zero tolerance policy succeed in a city where everything is tolerated?
Eduardo Paes, the fresh-faced 39-year-old mayor who took office on Jan. 1, is energetically trying to reverse Rio’s reputation as an anything-goes city where savvy citizens learn early that some laws exist only on paper and can be safely ignored.
Paes has the reputation of a micromanager, but yesterday he was to “relinquish” control of the city — ceremonially handing over the keys to King Momo in the official opening of Carnival.
But he isn’t giving up his campaign, even as more than 700,000 visitors crowd the streets.
“We have to give a shock of urban order to the city, an organized posture, to recover authority and better conserve public spaces,” he explained during the mayoral race.
Paes has vowed to reorganize the city in more than 80 ways since he announced his policy — a twist on both former US president George W. Bush’s “shock and awe” campaign that opened the war in Iraq and Brazil’s national motto of “Order and Progress.”
His first targets have been the countless providers of what many citizens consider to be useful — if illegal — services in Rio’s informal economy.
From men who sell boiled corn in the streets, to boys who demand coins to safeguard cars from thieves, to women hawking ice-cold beer from small coolers on Copacabana beach, hundreds of these workers have felt the pinch.
“I’ve been selling books here for 40 years,” said Rubem da Consigao, 71, a wisp of a man whose small folding table held 100 used volumes in the posh Ipanema neighborhood. “Then last week, the police came, said I didn’t have a vendor’s license, took my books and said they would burn them. This country is full of thieves — if they take the bread from my hand, there is going to be one more.”
Many such workers say they have been hassled by police. Almost all say they have little choice but to keep working illegally.
Informal economies have both positive and negative aspects, said Maria Jose Soares, whose book Street Business examined the lives of informal workers across the globe. “The good are supporting their families in a peaceful way, whereas the alternative is violence and crime. The government has to distinguish between the two.”
But Paes has said that Rio lost its luster long ago by allowing little crimes to tarnish its reputation: “I’ve never lived in the Marvelous City,” he has said, invoking one of Rio’s old nicknames.
At stake is not just a young mayor’s pride: Rio hopes to shine when Brazil hosts the 2014 football World Cup, and is among four finalists to host the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Paes appointed a new “Secretary of Public Order,” who saw to it that within two weeks of taking office, the “shock of order” campaign had demolished an illegal four-story condominium, confiscated 260 tonnes of goods sold by illegal street workers, towed 477 cars, removed 436 homeless people and handed out 3,457 fines.