RIO DE JANEIRO — It’s billed as the biggest show on Earth, but this year’s Carnival underway in Rio de Janeiro is also confirming the Brazilian city’s reputation for crime.
Nearly 100 tourists have been robbed, many by armed gangs, raising questions over whether Rio is safe enough to win a bid to host the 2016 Olympics.
Last week, men brandishing knives, a handgun and a grenade trussed up 34 Americans, Britons, Argentines and other foreigners staying in one hostel in the city center, stealing iPods, money and cameras.
A similar pre-dawn assault on another hostel in Copacabana stripped 13 tourists, including 11 Israelis, of their valuables.
A military patrol that stumbled on a mugging of 10 tourists — six Germans and four Americans — in the south of the city scared off their two attackers.
An Australian woman was also robbed as she arrived at her hostel early Friday.
Other cases compiled by the city’s Tourist Police service showed at least 94 foreigners have been victims of crime in the city so far this month — 20 percent more than February 2008, when the last Carnival was held.
Rio’s police, embarrassed by the robberies, have stepped up security.
A total of 9,800 officers have been deployed for the duration of Carnival, which runs to Tuesday. A suspect from one of the hostel assaults has also been arrested.
Fernando Veloso, the chief of the Rio Tourist Police, admitted to AFP that despite his service’s rapid response, “the damage is already done — the image (of the city) is already marred.”
He stressed that, while any crime against a foreigner was a concern, “when you consider the number of tourists in Rio in this period, it’s very small, the number of them who are victims.”
Riotur, the city’s tourist authority, said nearly a third of the 709,000 visitors in Rio for Carnival came from abroad.
Most of the crime in Rio is borne by its Brazilian residents.
According to official figures from 2008’s Carnival, there were a total 1,303 robbery incidents in Rio — of which just 117 involved foreigners.
There were also 80 homicides.
The US State Department-managed Overseas Security Advisory Council, rates the threat of crime in Rio de Janeiro as “critical.”
“Every big metropolis has problems,” Veloso said, using a common protest heard in Brazil. “I went to Rome and I was robbed — a police chief! I was robbed in Rome. I’m not ashamed to say it.”
Rio’s new mayor, Eduardo Paes, told reporters the robberies of foreigners were “very bad for the city’s image, but we aren’t going to focus on that. We’re going to concentrate on what’s good about Rio, which has a great Carnival and street parties,” according to the news website Globo.
His determination to minimize the attention given to the crimes stems in part from Rio’s bid to be chosen to host the 2016 Olympic Games.
On Friday, Paes handed over a symbolic key to the city to a Carnival king amid banners proclaiming Rio’s 2016 campaign in bright colors.
Brazil’s government has pledged to spend 14.4 billion dollars on upgrading the city — including making it safer – if Rio is selected over rivals Madrid, Chicago and Tokyo.
If Rio triumphs, it would be the first city in South America to go Olympic.
Veloso said he believed Rio’s attributes would outweigh its violent undercurrents if the decision went its way for the Games.
“I think Rio will be prepared, very well prepared. One or two cases (of crime) won’t ruin Rio’s image. There is always a problem of some sort. But every big city has problems,” he said.
Foreign tourists questioned in the wake of the robberies were inclined to agree.
“We love the city. We love the people and everything. You just have to do certain rules before you go out. You don’t walk alone in the streets. Just be careful, that’s all,” Ag Hommo, a 19-year-old student from Norway, said to AFP, after reporting to police her camera was stolen on a beach.
Jean-Robert Charrier, a 25-year-old theater director from France sitting at a cafe on Copacabana beach, said he was aware of the crime risk “because we’re told about it, but you don’t really think about.”
He added that, regardless, he intended to keep coming back for Carnival.
“It’s everything you can’t see on the TV in Europe. You really have to live it, because it truly is the best show in the world.”