Image: Brazil Carnival
Silvia Izquierdo  /  AP
Rio de Janeiro's mayor, Eduardo Paes, symbolically relinquishes control of the city, handing over the keys to Rei Momo, or Carnival King, to his left.
updated 2/20/2009 4:37:30 PM ET 2009-02-20T21:37:30

Rio's mayor has a plan he believes can tame this chaotic city, which is both beloved and loathed for the cacophony of sins that reach their apex during Carnival, which opened Friday.

His method: a "shock of order" campaign in which even the smallest of offenses will be punished.

His model, apparently, is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose crackdown on petty crime was credited by many for a remarkable drop in serious crime in the 1990s.

His chances of success in Rio: nil, according to most Brazilian observers.

After all, how can a zero tolerance policy succeed in a city where everything is tolerated?

Eduardo Paes, the fresh-faced 39-year-old mayor who took office on Jan. 1, is energetically trying to reverse Rio's reputation as an anything-goes city where savvy citizens learn early that some laws exist only on paper and can be safely ignored.

Paes has the reputation of a micromanager, but on Friday he symbolically relinquished control of the city — ceremonially handing over the keys to King Momo in the official opening of the festival as samba dancers on stilts threw confetti on the 50 journalists gathered around.

But the mayor isn't giving up his campaign, even as more than 700,000 visitors crowd the streets. "We have to give a shock of urban order to the city, an organized posture, to recover authority and better conserve public spaces," he explained during the mayoral race.

Paes has vowed to reorganize the city in more than 80 ways since he announced his policy — a twist on former U.S. President Bush's "shock and awe" campaign that opened the war in Iraq and Brazil's national motto of "Order and Progress."

'Country is full of thieves'
His first targets have been the countless providers of what many citizens consider to be useful — if illegal — services in Rio's informal economy.

From men who sell boiled corn in the streets, to boys who demand coins to safeguard cars from thieves, to women hawking ice-cold beer from small coolers on Copacabana beach, hundreds of these workers have felt the pinch.

"I've been selling books here for 40 years," said Rubem da Consigao, 71, a wisp of a man whose small folding table held 100 used volumes in the posh Ipanema neighborhood. "Then last week, the police came, said I didn't have a vendor's license, took my books and said they would burn them. This country is full of thieves — if they take the bread from my hand, there is going to be one more."

Many such workers say they have been hassled by police. Almost all say they have little choice but to keep working illegally.

Slideshow: Carnival around the world Informal economies have both positive and negative aspects, said Maria Jose Soares, whose 2008 book "Street Business" examined the lives of informal workers across the globe. "The good are supporting their families in a peaceful way, whereas the alternative is violence and crime. The government has to distinguish between the two."

But Paes has said that Rio lost its luster long ago by allowing little crimes to tarnish its reputation: "I've never lived in the Marvelous City," he has said, invoking one of Rio's old nicknames.

At stake is not just a young mayor's pride: Rio hopes to shine when Brazil hosts the 2014 football World Cup, and is among four finalists to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. The city would spend $14.4 billion to prepare for the games, but can only win the bid if the International Olympic Committee views Rio as safe and orderly.

To Paes' frustration, Rio's most notorious problem — violence — is something he has little control over, since Brazil's security forces are in the hands of state and federal officials. More than 4,694 people were murdered in Rio last year from January through October, the latest statistics available from the city's Institute of Public Security.

Tools to fight crime
Men armed with guns and grenades robbed more than 40 foreign backpackers in two hostels this week and 10 other tourists were robbed as they took a tour of the rain forest just outside Rio.

Even so, Paes told reporters, "there will be much more happiness than assaults during Carnival."

With few tools to combat crime as Carnival fever takes over Rio, the mayor's staff must settle on things like targeting the hordes of people who follow revelers through the streets selling beer from enormous foam coolers attached to skateboards.

The mayor's office declined to make him available for an interview about his campaign, but in public statements, he also has promised to keep slums from expanding, remove the homeless from the streets, destroy illegally constructed houses, stop the massive trade of pirated goods and tackle the "visual pollution" of unauthorized billboards.

Oh, and confront corruption at all levels of government.

And clean up the city's polluted beaches.

Paes even appointed a new "Secretary of Public Order," who saw to it that within two weeks of taking office, the "shock of order" campaign had demolished an illegal four-story condominium, confiscated 260 tons of goods sold by illegal street workers, towed 477 cars, removed 436 homeless people and handed out 3,457 fines.

Brazilian media applauded. But within days, the depth of Rio's social ills was evident: Rusting VW vans returned to illegal spaces along the beachfront, homeless people still wander in the streets, a pirated DVD can be purchased just about anywhere.

And with Carnival under way, unlicensed vendors are selling a tremendous amount of beer.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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