Does Brazil’s Christ shed a tear looking down over the sadness below him?
It’s a question Rio de Janeiro’s residents ask as they gaze up to what has become the most dangerous wonder of the world.
Last Friday the steep 2.5-mile Corcovado jungle trail to the giant Christ the Redeemer statue was closed the day after a Polish man was stabbed, one of 58 people to have been robbed along the trail in just 10 days. More than 150 people have been robbed this year alone.
Young, armed criminals from nearby favelas (slums) have been sneaking in from the mountainside, lying in wait and pouncing before disappearing back from where they came.
Five men aged between 18 and 28 have been arrested and charged over the stabbing.
Locals have become so concerned that they’ve taped makeshift signs to trees and poles printed with a handgun warning in English and Portuguese: “Be cautious. Do not risk your life.”
Robbed at Jesus’ feet
Twenty-one-year-old Dutch student Renate Trinks told News.com.au how, two weeks ago, she and two friends had passed tropical plants, waterfalls, and monkeys and were close to the end of the hike when they came around a bend to find three young Brazilian men waiting for them.
“When we were closer they showed us their knives and told us to sit down and give them all our stuff,” Trinks said.
“While we were handing over our belongings more tourists were coming and they robbed everyone.”
“Some people had a lot of cash on them, and expensive cameras, [the robbers] had two backpacks full of stuff.”
With one of the victims, an American woman, growing anxious, half an hour passed before the gang walked everyone 600 feet back down the pathway. The robbers then disappeared into the trees behind them.”
“They said there was a guy waiting for us with a gun, but we never saw this guy. So I think it was just to scare us,” Trinks said.
“At the beginning when I saw their knives I was a little scared but the robbery itself was not too scary, they were pretty calm. They gave back passports and credit cards.”
“I had read online that the hike was pretty dangerous and I already had a bad feeling about it so I didn’t bring my watch and rings. I decided to bring my phone to take pictures.”
Paradise lost to paradise found
The trail’s closure has capped a year from hell for Brazil and Rio since the 2016 Olympic cauldron’s flame was extinguished and the world’s TV cameras left its shores.
Leaving too have been a record number of Brazilians for Australia, tired of the lack of security and worsening prospects as their country suffers its worse economic and political crises in a generation.
As its unemployment rate tripled to over 13 percent and its first female president Dilma Rousseff was fired by parliament just days after the Olympics ended, over 48,000 Brazilian tourists and students arrived in Australia last year, up 181 percent from a decade ago.
They make up the fifth highest number of overseas students, the only country in the top five from outside of Asia, many with dreams of permanent residency.
The Brazilian Community Council of Australia estimates that there are as many as 60,000 Brazilians living in the country. Census data revealed the majority were in professional, managerial or trade jobs.
Insurance worker Luciana*, 35, and her husband Marcos*, 40, who works in computing, are two of the latest arrivals, leaving their beachside Rio life last October to escape the violence.
Sydney with its similar weather, beaches and natural beauty was a “dream” come true to raise their two-year-old daughter.
“Rio is beautiful but it is abandoned,” Luciana, who was the victim of two robberies, said.
“When I got pregnant I was sure I didn’t want to raise my child there and the dream to move to Australia came.
“From her birth to moving to Australia I never left her in the car seat alone. I was next to her always thinking about how to get her out of the car in case of a robbery.”
“Did you know that I only realized that when I got here? I was so used to the violence that this was normal for me.”
Now in the relative safety of her Lane Cove home she told of a horror list of crimes recently suffered by people she knew back home in Rio.
“After I moved my brother was robbed going to work, my cousin was robbed along with her husband and three children in their car,” she said.
“The children saw the bandits put a gun to their father’s head and threatened to shoot him if he couldn’t get his ring off his finger. The boy vomited in fear, he’s only 5 years old.
“And the father of a friend who was a retired police officer was killed at a Lojas Americanas [supermarket]. And last week two more people I know were robbed on the street.
”In October I’m going back to Rio [to visit] but I’m already worried.”
Where to now?
Many of Rio de Janeiro’s forgotten and dilapidated Olympic venues now stand as a symbol of hard times.
As the state hovers close to bankruptcy and struggles to pay its public workers on time, including police, crime has flourished.
Its Institute of Public Security’s May data revealed there were 424 murder victims for the month, 55 more than in the same month last year. In the first five months of the year there were 2,329 homicide victims in total, 11 percent more than for the same period in 2016.
So far this year 85 police officers in Rio have been killed and innocent civilians are injured and killed by stray bullets in gun battles between cops and drug trafficking gangs in favelas regularly, including a pregnant woman who last week was shot in the womb, paralyzing her unborn child, though both survived.
The head of Rio’s tourist police department (DEAT) Valéria Aragão has ordered the closure of the trail inside Tijuca National Park until sufficient police resources can be put there.
“Patrolling in the region will never be efficient because human resources in the security forces are overwhelmingly under-resourced,” she told reporters.
As crime and unemployment continues to rise so too will the number of educated and skilled Brazilians leaving their beloved homeland for a new life in Australia.
“I was afraid even of my shadow,” Luciana said.
“As I traveled a lot outside Brazil I knew that this was a life that I did not want to take.”
Christ the Redeemer, which receives on average 5,500 visitors per day, is still able to be accessed by train, van and taxi.
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