Even in this city inured by violence and random street crime, the attack was shocking. Brazilian media described it as a six-hour, 40-mile drive through hell.
On Saturday night, a 21-year-old American student and her French boyfriend holidaying in Rio de Janeiro boarded a minibus on the Copacabana Beach bound for a trendy entertainment district downtown. The bus was an off-white vehicle, no different from the dozens of others minibuses that ply the city streets, trolling for late-night fares.
A few miles later, though, the couple was surprised, but not yet alarmed, when the driver pulled up to the curb and asked the other passengers to step out of the bus. Only when the driver went on to pick up two other men, one of them armed with an iron bar, did they know that their night on the town had gone terribly wrong.
The van and its captives peeled away, speeding toward São Gonçalo, a scruffy neighborhood some 20 miles across the bay from Rio. After stopping to fill up at a service station—using the victims’ credit cards to pay for gas and liquor—the driver continued to a slum neighborhood where the Frenchman was bound and beaten with an iron bar, and made to look on while the three assailants took turns raping the woman again and again inside the van.
Six hours later, the couple was released and abandoned on the streets of a commercial district some 30 miles outside Rio. This weekend, the American woman left the country while her boyfriend reportedly stayed behind to assist the police with their investigation.
The brutal attack was a blow to city officials, who have been reveling in an impressive turnaround after a long period marked by violent street crime, urban decay, and economic blight. An intensive police campaign has, over the last five years, liberated 30 city slums from the yoke of drug traffickers, who had otherwise turned the favela slums into their private fortresses from which to control their drug-and-crime kingdoms.
According to the most recent Map of Violence Survey, a report by the Latin American Studies Center, homicides in Rio is now at 11 per every 100,000 inhabitants, a 20-year low. One glaring exception, however, is sexual assault, which spiked 23 percent last year, rising to 6,029 reported cases from 4,871, according to the police records—numbers that, most likely, are way below the real figures as rape and cases of sexual assaults aren’t always reported.
The city is preparing to host a number of world events. This July, tens of thousands of young Catholics are expected to flock to Rio for a world youth pilgrimage, capped by a mass by Pope Francis. Brazil also will be the setting for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, and so, the assault on the American tourist and her French boyfriend, caused media outrage with some comparing the attack with a brutal rape of a young Indian woman on a public bus in New Delhi in December that led to her death.
However, some papers seemed more concerned with the city’s international reputation, not least because of the tourism industry, a major money maker. “Rape hits Rio’s image,” ran one newspaper headline. “No one expects to be assaulted inside of the Disney Parks, then handcuffed and beaten,” Alfredo Lopes, president of the Rio-based Brazilian Hotel Association, told Brazilian news media. “Copacabana is our Disney [World.]”
Though police had failed to arrest anyone in a similar attack on a Brazilian woman on March 23, following this incident, Rio police managed to arrest two men within hours of the crime. A third man was apprehended on Monday.
In a terse note to the press, Civil Police chief inspector Martha Rocha announced the dismissal of the regional head of the special unit for crimes against women for failing to take adequate safety measures in the aftermath of the rape of the 23-year-old Brazilian woman on March 23. She also fired a forensic inspector involved in the same investigation.
“I was desperate, pleading, ‘For the love of God, let me go and I won’t tell anyone’,” the Brazilian victim told a local television news channel after that attack. “I could have died.”
Rocha issued an apology for the “services rendered” by the women’s police units “precisely those that should be most sensitive to episodes such as this.”