02:50 - Source: CNN
Specter of rampant crime threatens Rio games
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil CNN  — 

When gunbattles break out in the impoverished hilltop communities that overlook Rio De Janeiro, some residents hide in the bathrooms of their homes. Others take shelter under staircases.

In the case of Max Groy, he had very few options.

As a coach of the German Olympic Sailing team, he was fueling up his boat at a waterfront gas station last month when he heard a sound that he initially thought was firecrackers.

“All of the sudden everybody started running at the gas station and hiding behind things,” he said. “So I thought, that might be time to just lay flat in the motor boat and hide as well.”

Groy emerged unscathed, even though he said bullets struck water and pavement some 20 meters away. The veteran sailor, himself a former Olympic athlete, said it was the first time he witnessed a gunfight.

“It was surreal,” he said. “That’s the stuff you see in movies, but not in real life.”

Armed clashes are a deadly, daily fact of life in parts of the Olympic host city. The violence is typically concentrated in the favelas, the hilltop slums where heavily-armed drug gangs have long held sway.

And some observers predict the violence is getting worse in the final months before the Games begin.

“The violence will increase because [the traffickers] want to use this global event to exert pressure on the police to retreat,” said Liliane Sabio, a teacher who works in a library in a favela in Rio’s Santa Teresa neighborhood.

"A lot of money will come in, but whose pockets will it go into?" asked Lucia Cabral, a community activist in Alemao, one of Rio's largest favelas.

Sabio said at least six stray bullets flew into the library when daytime clashes erupted between police and gang-members on May 25.

During the battle, police armed with long semiautomatic rifles sprinted past school children and other frightened residents, taking cover behind cars and aiming their weapons up the hill.

At one point, authorities deployed special police forces known by the Brazilian acronym BOPE as well as a large armored personnel carrier.

Gunfire crackled through the neighborhood. Some police rested in front of a mural painted at the entrance to the favela in happier times, which listed the number of days the neighborhood had gone without armed conflict.

By the end of the gunbattle, local media reported at least three suspected drug traffickers had been killed.

Police in Rio are struggling with budget cuts during the worst economic recession Brazil has seen in decades.

Still, the top police officer in Rio insists the city will be safe when hundreds of thousands of tourists and athletes are expected to arrive for the Olympics in August.

In an interview with CNN’s Shasta Darlington, Jose Mariano Beltrame explained he would deploy an expected 85,000 police officers and army soldiers around the city.

“I don’t doubt that we are prepared to put on a great Olympic Games,” Beltrame said.

“Rio is not the safest place in the world,” said the city’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, in a separate interview with CNN last week.

As mayor, Paes does not have jurisdiction over the security forces. He is, however, a spokesman and enthusiastic official champion of the city. Asked about the robbery at gunpoint of members of the Spanish Olympic Sailing team in late May, Paes insisted that when the Games begin, “Rio will be safer.”

Much will depend on the response of the drug gangs. Brazilians often refer to these traffickers and the favelas they control as “the parallel state.”

After the reported deaths of suspected traffickers on May 25, someone torched a public bus on the street below the same favela.

The arson attack appeared to be an act of retribution. In previous years, during periods of intense clashes between police and gangs, traffickers often torched buses and other vehicles in shows of displeasure.

A young gang member masked his face and refused to reveal his name for fear of being identified by Brazilian authorities.

Under cover of darkness, CNN recently ventured into a favela in Rio’s tourist Zona Sul, or South Zone, to meet with a low-level drug dealer who said he was a member of the Red Command, one of Rio’s most notorious gangs.

The young man masked his face and refused to reveal his name for fear of being identified by the authorities.

Asked whether the traffickers would pose a threat to the athletes and tourists at the Olympics, he suggested he was too junior a member of the gang to give an informed answer.

“I just don’t know,” he said, adding cryptically, “because it’s not just bandits here or bandits there, it’s bandits all over Brazil.”

The young trafficker, who displayed a heavy black pistol and bundles of cocaine, expressed contempt for the Olympics. He called the Games “dirty.”

“I don’t see any use or advantage [to the Games],” the gang member said. He accused wealthy Brazilians of using the Olympics as a cover for “robbing the Brazilian population.”

The gang member’s skepticism about Rio hosting the world’s biggest sporting event was echoed by a number of working class residents of the city.

“A lot of money will come in, but whose pockets will it go into?” asked Lucia Cabral, a community activist in Alemao, one of Rio’s largest favelas.

“It is not for us,” she said, gesturing to the favela, with its garbage-strewn streets and lack of sewage treatment.

As for the violence, Cabral said that security in the favelas – while never good – appeared to be deteriorating.

“Today we live in the middle of a crossfire, in a war that is not our own,” she said.