Ben Penglase is an associate professor of anthropology and Latin American Studies at Loyola University Chicago.
Ryan Lochte and Darlene da Silva. If you've been paying attention to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, you know at least one of these names. Ryan Lochte, of course, is the medal-winning U.S. swimmer whose story about having been robbed at gunpoint in Rio has been exposed as a fabrication. As Lochte's story began to unravel last week, Darlene da Silva was shot and killed near her home in Complexo do Alemão, a sprawling favela on Rio's north side.
Why did one person's story receive so much attention, while the other's death went unremarked? Why was one incident the subject of intense investigation and heated social media debate, while the other was just another statistic? The different reactions to these two names tell a story about race, privilege and security in Rio de Janeiro, a story which resonates in the cities throughout the United States also struggling with racial inequality and urban violence.
Lochte's claim that after leaving a party early Sunday morning he and several other swimmers were held up at gunpoint by men claiming to be police officers drew almost immediate attention. Aware of Rio's reputation for crime, the state's authorities had massively invested in policing neighborhoods where the Olympic events would occur and where athletes and tourists were more likely to visit. Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes, even stated that during the Olympics, Rio would be the safest place in the world. When I visited Rio in July, shortly before the games began, I was momentarily taken aback when I walked past soldiers with automatic rifles stationed along Rio's famous Ipanema beach.
As with most other host cities, Rio's decision to host the Olympics was never simply about sports or a momentary infusion of tourist cash. It was part of an attempt to "re-brand" the city as modern, cosmopolitan, and safe for business. Lochte's story punctured a hole in this image, showing that even in the midst of a heavy militarization of wealthier parts of the city, crime might occur. Lochte's claim that people posing as police had robbed him also struck at the image of an institution which many see as hopelessly corrupt. By relying on stereotypes of Rio as violent and dangerous, Lochte was also tangling with a larger set of images of Rio as "uncivilized" and "backward," that many Cariocas, or resident of Rio, had hoped the Olympics might help dispel.
While Rio's wealthier neighborhoods have benefited from a ramp-up in security, the same cannot be said of other parts of the sprawling city, such as the area where Darlene da Silva lived. In fact, for those living in parts of the city which athletes or tourists are unlikely to visit, security has gotten much worse. Beginning in 2008, Rio's authorities began a process of "pacifying" many of Rio's favelas. This policy, and an upturn in Brazil's economy, led to a significant drop in homicide rates.
But recently, this period of relative security has unraveled. Due to Brazil's economic crisis, the money needed to maintain the "pacification" policy has evaporated. In fact, police and firemen received no salaries for two months before the games began, until the federal government stepped with an emergency infusion of cash. The pacification policy in Rio's favelas also may have generated increased fragmentation and competition among the city's drug-dealing organizations, and hence more violence. And pacification was not accompanied by structural reforms of the police, whose interactions with residents of favelas has often been truculent, and not occasionally lethal. Darlene da Silva lived in one such "pacified" favela, and was killed when local drug-traffickers fired on a police patrol.
One result is that while some parts of Rio are blanketed with police and soldiers, in others violence has increased dramatically. While this violence is often ignored, social media and the ubiquity of cell phones are allowing residents of Rio -- just like those elsewhere -- to make their suffering visible. The app Fogo Cruzado, for instance, allows people to use their cell phones to document information about shootouts in their neighborhoods. According to its statistics, during the first week of the Olympic games, there were an average of 8.4 shootouts per day, 32 people were wounded, and 14 people were killed. In the Complexo do Alemão area, where Darlene da Silva lived, there were four continuous days of shootouts. One of Darlene's friends said that she was killed during such a shootout when she was hit by a stray bullet fired by the police.
As soon as Lochte's story surfaced, the police and media immediately turned their attention not to investigating the alleged crime, but to scrutinizing the athletes themselves. Rio's authorities were of course immediately concerned that the incident would irreparably harm their efforts to present an image of Rio as safe. As it emerged that Lochte and the other swimmers had not, in fact, been robbed, the incident tapped into other, broader, anxieties.
Many of Rio's residents, even those I spoke with who were critical about the massive spending on the Olympics, were justifiably proud of their city. Many Cariocas are also aware that all too often, visiting foreigners treat their city as a playground of sex, sun and samba, confident that their wealth, nationality and white skin color allow them to ignore the law, and basic rules of social decorum, at will. A taxi cab driver, for instance, off-handedly told me, "you know how Americans love visiting whorehouses."
The boorish behavior of Lochte and his fellow swimmers, who drunkenly vandalized a gas station bathroom and fought with security guards, hit this raw nerve: they seemed to believe that whiteness, wealth and American citizenship bestowed upon them the privilege of treating the city as a giant frat house. The reaction on social media by many of my Brazilian friends was intense, calling for the athletes to be publicly humiliated and criminally prosecuted. One post also pointed to the underlying bias, stating simply: "if they were black and Brazilian they'd be screwed."
The reaction to the death of Darlene da Silva could not have been more different. With the exception of her family and neighbors, few people noticed her death. Lochte's American citizenship, wealth, and media fame made him hyper-visible. Darlene da Silva, a 43 year-old woman who worked as a maid and lived in a neighborhood far from the media spot light, was invisible. While Lochte's action were seen as reprehensible -- which they clearly were -- Darlene da Silva's death was seen as just another sad fact of life in a city riven by savage inequality and urban violence. It is unlikely that Darlene da Silva's death will attract a fraction of the official or social media attention that Lochte's actions have, if it is investigated at all.
How do these two people's intersecting stories speak to each other, and what they tell us about how we react to urban violence in both Brazil and in the United States? Lochte's story shows how incidents where whiteness, masculinity, media notoriety and privilege collide with reprehensible behavior attract rapid attention. Darlene da Silva shows us how violence where the victim is not so privileged remains hidden. Lochte's story evoked powerful personal emotions. For many of my Brazilian friends, it epitomized their anger at how foreigners disrespect them. For Americans like me, who have visited Brazil many times, it epitomized an image that we try hard to disavow. Even as we piled criticism upon Lochte, we could recognize in him elements of our own lives. Yet what did he and his friends actually do? If reports are true, they drunkenly engaged in acts of vandalism and lied, hardly major crimes. Darlene da Silva on the other hand, a woman from a poor, neglected, disproportionately non-white and stigmatized neighborhood, one very different from where most of us live, was killed. One name you know, the other you don't.