Marcelo Simoes stands on the porch of his one-room brick-and-cinder-block home in a Rio de Janeiro favela, sorting through his freshly acquired loot — $45 in cash, an iPhone 6, California ID and two credit cards he snatched hours earlier.
Simoes and two friends nabbed the goods from an unknowing Copacabana beachgoer’s purse before burying it in the sand and walking away unnoticed.
“I wish it was Reais, but dollars will do,” he said in his native Portuguese, grinning.
The 17-year-old Simoes and several friends living in the Santa Marta favela (slum) are frequent visitors to the popular tourist beach, where as many as 2 million people pack the 2.2-mile stretch annually for popular Rio holidays such as New Year’s Eve and Carnival. Simoes colludes with his favela neighbors, also teenagers, to distract tourists and walk away with their valuables. Most of his victims don’t realize they’ve been robbed until it’s too late, he said.
Simoes estimates his ring has swiped as much as $1,500 in cash of different currencies over the past two years and resold more than 20 cellphones for about 500 Reais, or about $150 per phone on the internet and to local black markets.
Simoes, who has lived in the south Rio favela his entire life, doesn’t dream of attending one of the city’s government-subsidized, free-tuition universities. Instead, he’s content with supporting his mother, Tamires, 35, and sisters Larissa, 14, and Carla, 4, with money to “eat and live,” by carrying out carefully schemed thefts on Rio’s most crowded tourist beach.
He says his only guilty pleasure is smoking marijuana to relax during the day — and again before bed.
“You have to take care of yourself, too, once in a while,” Simoes said.
Just off the north side of the beach, in the 3,500-resident Chapeau Mangueira favela, 15-year-old Dilson Silva, whose real first name was redacted at his family’s request, skips between attending school and spending the day robbing tourists in popular places around the city. On some days, he does both.
Unlike Simoes, Silva isn’t just limited to beaches. During crowded times of the year, such as Carnival in February, the teen said he feasts, pickpocketing at Rio’s target-rich Largo da Carioca square and the hillside neighborhood of Santa Teresa, both about three miles away from where he lives.
“There are so many people here, it’s easy,” Silva said in Portuguese. “Nobody knows who grabbed their things.”
The bustling city areas are far enough away from Silva’s favela that in the event he’s caught by police, it won’t lead authorities back to his loved ones at home, he said.
There are so many people here, it’s easy. Nobody knows who grabbed their things.
15-year-old Dilson Silva
‘JUST OUR REALITY’
More than 100,000 Americans are expected to attend the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this month, and as many as 10,000 of them would be robbed or assaulted if not for the presence of 88,000 civil and military police, double the number of such authorities that served in London during the 2012 Games.
That’s according to 45-year Rio historian Antonio Edmilson Rodrigues, a history professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, who estimated that as many as one in 10 visitors to the Marvelous City fell victim to people like Simoes and Silva over the past year. The thieves, mostly from favelas, capitalize on tourists’ naiveté or, less often, rely on physical violence and intimidation — like wielding a knife or gun — to steal their valuables, Rodrigues said.
“Like any city, Rio has its problems,” Rodrigues, 69, said in his native Portuguese. “That’s just our reality.”
Although data for petty crime wasn’t available from state or city authorities, Rio ranked just outside the world’s 50 murder capitals of the world, with 18.9 homicides per 100,000 people, according to a 2015 report from the Mexico City-based Citizen’s Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice. That statistic put Rio in the same category as Compton, California, but still outside the top 22 most homicide-ridden metropolitan cities in Brazil.
Rio de Janeiro Secretary of Security Jose Mariano Beltrame said he doesn’t expect tourists to feel threatened by the possibility of being killed during the Olympics or for those driving cars to expect to be robbed if they follow “common sense” practices of avoiding being out alone or late at night.
88,000Numbers of civil and military police, double the number of such authorities that served in London during the 2012 Games, protecting the more than 100,000 Americans that are expected to attend the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this month.
But Beltrame called petty thefts such as pickpocketing a probability for both tourists and locals alike who aren’t paying proper attention.
“We advise visitors to read up on the city and have an idea of what to expect when they come here,” Beltrame said. “We want to guarantee the security of everybody.”
Inside the city’s Pereira da Silva favela, Pousada Favelinha hostel manager Matti Muraja has offered tourists lodging and a slice of culture in one of Rio’s poorest clusters of slums since 2004.
A native of Finland, Muraja, 34, argues the city’s crime, though significant, can be overstated, with too much blame placed on the favelas and not enough on tourists.
Muraja said favelas are peaceful for those who live there, and for visitors who act like they belong. As part of his lodging package, he advises guests of the seven-room, two dormitory hostel to behave a “little bit harder” than they would in most vacation destinations.
“You definitely have to keep your eyes open,” Muraja said. “But people here are respectful to those who show them the same respect. It’s common-sense living and learning.”
Like Beltrame, Muraja expects crime to be lower during the Olympics, thanks to increased security and a tourist crowd more focused on attending events than partying the night away.
“I think this is too expensive of a trip for people not to pay attention,” Muraja said. “Time is more valuable with all that’s going on and most people are already spending a fortune to be here.”
GETTING THEIR SHARE
Simoes agreed with Muraja’s assessment of the Olympics’ value for event-goers, but hopes the larger crowds will bring more prosperity his way, too.
“People in the favelas have also been waiting for the Olympics,” he said. “Just for other reasons.”
In November 2008, authorities in Rio established a special statewide police force, known as the Police Pacifying Unit (UPP) to clean, restore and occupy the city’s most dangerous favelas — using force to remove armed drug cartels that had dominated many of Rio’s 1,000 shantytowns for decades. Before UPP, armed teens stood guard at favela entrances, granting permission to residents, police and even clergy to enter.
But although Rio’s favelas have arguably become safer, residents say the economic impact of citywide projects and billions of dollars of infrastructure investment for the Olympics has worked against them. In Barra da Tijuca — where 15,000 Olympic and Paralympic athletes will be lodging and competing during the games — the city has evicted nearly 1,000 residents from 20 favelas in the area since 2014, according to data from the nonprofit Terre des Hommes, a Sweden-based think tank that focuses on children from low-income families.
There’s certainly a sense of frustration there. The lower class is being pushed away from areas of prosperity and basically being told there’s no place for them.
Rio historian Rodrigues
“There’s certainly a sense of frustration there,” Rio historian Rodrigues said. “The lower class is being pushed away from areas of prosperity and basically being told there’s no place for them.”
Both Simoes and Silva said they use the money from stolen goods for their families and an occasional marijuana fix. But they deny being addicted to drugs or having any involvement with the underground drug trade once synonymous with Rio’s shantytown neighborhoods.
They say they don’t set out to hurt others. But as long as they can avoid punishment, the two said they will continue to steal.
“It’s exciting and it’s good for us,” Silva said. “That’s all that matters to me.”