Under intervention, Rio relives problems of 200 years ago

. Feb 24, 2018
Rio de Janeiro - illustration Jean-Baptiste Debret Rio de Janeiro in the 1810s. By Jean-Baptiste Debret
Rio de Janeiro - illustration Jean-Baptiste Debret

Rio de Janeiro in the 1810s. By Jean-Baptiste Debret

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s picture-perfect city, faced rampant crime rates, problems caused by unplanned urban expansion, and latent social tensions.  The clueless government couldn’t manage the crisis, opting instead to rely on military forces to act as law enforcement in peripheral neighborhoods. Intervention troops were accused of brutality and of attempting against Brazil’s legislation.

While the previous paragraph could very well describe recent events in Rio de Janeiro, it is actually about Rio in 1808.

In that year, the Portuguese Court fled a French invasion and settled in Rio. The small city suddenly turned into the capital of the Portuguese Crown. The city’s population was growing fast, due to an immigration boom that saw a plethora of Portuguese and other European arrivals, but didn’t cope well with the rapid expansion. It lacked in space, homes, and infrastructure; consequently, the immigration boom aggravated existing social tensions.

Many residents felt that crime was out of control. “In this city and its suburbs, we have been greatly insulted by thieves,” Luiz Joaquim dos Santos Marrocos, a royal archivist based in Rio, wrote in a letter to his father in Lisbon. “In five days, 22 murders were reported in a small circuit, and one night in front of my door a thief killed two people and seriously wounded a third.”

Historical accounts of the time showed that crime had shot up in Rio, with increases in thefts, robberies, murders, and gangs armed with knives and daggers. Ships in the Guanabara Bay’s harbors were targeted by passing pirates, and prostitution and gambling, both illegal at the time, were witnessed in broad daylight.

Only São Paulo could boast similar levels of population growth, but in Rio the demographics had another element: at least half of the city’s population consisted of African slaves. Race proved a pressure point for many of the city’s residents, including Marrocos – who complained in his letter that there were too many blacks and poor people in the city’s streets, all of whom were dressed unsuitably.

Enter the interventor

Prince regent of the time, Dom João VI put lawyer Paulo Fernandes Viana in charge of Rio’s security system. A court-appointed judge, Viana was born in Rio de Janeiro and studied at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. The monarch, trusting in Viana, appointed him as the General Intendant of Rio’s police on May 10, 1808. He held the position until 1821, meeting every two days with the Prince Regent.

Viana’s function was equivalent to that of a modern-day mayor and public security secretariat. Like a Brazilian version of Paris’s Baron Haussmann, Viana was seen as “a civilizing agent,” tasked with transforming Rio’s blend of colonial, provincial, dangerous, and unsanitary elements into something that resembled a European capital. His role included everything from overseeing urban planning and safety issues to issuing passports. Crime, however, was Viana’s primary focus.

Rio de Janeiro Debret illustration

Marrocos’s racially-charged complaint was a frequent one among white residents. Black residents – largely slaves mainly from Western African countries – would gather in public squares on Sundays and public holidays. They would practice capoeira, as an art form and a self-defense, and play drums, among other leisure activities. Capoeira was illegal at the time, and was one of several activities, which, if slave owners caught their slaves partaking in, could result in severe public floggings.

Criminalizing culture whose roots are Afro-Brazilian is familiar in modern Brazil’s pop culture. The country’s stereotypical rhythm, samba, suffered decades of prosecution for its links to African culture, and researchers today maintain that this prejudice continues. Maurício Barros de Castro, an art professor at Rio de Janeiro State University, told DW in 2016 that racial discrimination “can be seen in recurrent speeches by certain experts” on the topic.

“It is common to say, for example, that samba became more accepted after reaching a sophistication, from white, literate and middle-class composers,” he said.

Meanwhile, Afro-Brazilians have few speaking roles in film and television, and a legislative suggestion last year floated the idea of criminalizing funk brasileiro. While not an exclusively black genre, funk brasileiro has long been associated with the peripheral communities and favelas which it originated from and has consequently garnered distaste from certain social classes, including (jailed) politicians.

Back in the early 1800s, however, Viana had a solution to the perceived influx of Black culture in Rio’s streets: ban blacks from public spaces. Public floggings were unsightly, and removing a select demographic from the streets would solve the problem. An 1821 report from the Intendant showed that one-third of all slave arrests under his tenure was on the grounds of “crimes against public order” – a category that spanned everything from fights, drunkenness, and games like capoeira to physical aggression. If a slave was found carrying a knife, they could receive between two to three hundred lashes.

Today, Brazil’s crime statistics continue to demonstrate a racial slant: Afro-Brazilians make up 64 percent of the prison population, many of them young and hailing from low-income backgrounds. This selectivity has become a critical target for sociologists and legal experts alike, who argue that the current demographics inside Brazil’s prisons amount to the criminalization of Black bodies. And in Rio’s current intervention, attempts to ‘register’ residents of certain favela communities has drawn sharp criticisms of apartheid.

Rio police: extreme tactics

Viana had a complaint that echoes one of Rio’s security secretariat’s difficulties today. In a large, metropolitan city, Viana had just 75 police officers instead of the 218 that should be in place. While modern Rio has its special police forces, the BOPE, Viana introduced a group that came to be known as ‘bats’.

‘Bats’ were covert officers, renowned for their abilities to silently appear out of nowhere on street corners, capoeira sessions, drum circles, and anywhere else where Rio’s black residents happened to be gathering. Led by Miguel Nunes Vidigal, Second-Commander of the new Royal Guard, these officers were brutal, merciless and paid little attention to the law.

Vidigal ordered his soldiers to arrest and beat any participant in illicit activities. In place of a military saber sword, Vidigal and his soldiers carried long, heavy rods, tipped with rawhide – a more durable cousin of leather, used today for items such as drumheads.

Nor were capoeira circles Vidigal’s only agenda. Viana’s major was in charge of several attacks on quilombos in Rio’s surrounding forests. In 1820, Vidigal received a piece of land at the foot of the city’s iconic Two Brothers mountain from Benedictine monks, as a reward for his services. This later became the base of Vidigal favela, which began to grow in 1940.

President Michel Temer’s latest moves in Rio have triggered rumors that he, too, is seeking reward for his federal intervention – although in his case, this takes the form of re-election. With around 1 percent of voting intentions at this point, the very idea of a re-election bid was seen as a joke. But with lackluster candidates mostly failing to capture more than 6 percent of voting intentions, Temer wouldn’t have to gain much public approval to become a competitor.

The Brazilian Report

We are an in-depth content platform about Brazil, made by Brazilians and destined to foreign audiences.

Our content is protected by copyright. Want to republish The Brazilian Report? Email us at