A Brazilian Boom Town of ‘Eternal Beauty’ Faces Its Troubled Side
By SIMON ROMERO
Published: November 10, 2013
SALVADOR, Brazil — Baroque architectural gems grace this city. Musicians enthrall audiences with high-octane performances reflecting Salvador’s status as a bastion of Brazil’s popular culture. Luxury residential towers overlook a stunning harbor. The industrial park on the city’s outskirts contains cutting-edge plants opened by Ford and other multinational corporations.
Salvador, the largest city in northeastern Brazil, a region that is still posting enviable economic growth even as the national economy slows, should have the wind at its back. But the boom here is producing another outcome: Instead of celebrating Salvador as its residents have long done — the writer Jorge Amado once called it a laid-back place of “eternal beauty” — many people here are increasingly revolted by their city.
In what may serve as a cautionary tale for other cities in the developing world, Salvador’s rising prosperity, on display in new shopping malls, sprawling megachurches and well-guarded gated communities, exists alongside a troubled reality. A surge in violent crime has transformed Salvador into Brazil’s murder capital, motorists grapple with traffic that ranks among the most chaotic and violent of any South American city and resentment festers over the metamorphosis of once-elegant seaside districts into crime-ridden areas with abandoned buildings best described as ruins.
“Our political leaders are of such mediocrity that it is hard to comprehend,” said Antonio Risério, a writer and historian who has chronicled Salvador’s origins as Brazil’s first capital, from 1549 to 1763, and the cradle of African-Brazilian culture. “We’re not a failed city, but we’re a place where the middle class lives in fear,” added Mr. Risério, among the most acerbic critics of how Salvador has recently changed.
Salvador now has more homicides each year than any other Brazilian metropolis, including the megacity São Paulo, which is four times as large. The security breakdown has grown so acute and surreal this year that murder victims are being found beheaded,as in the case of a body found on a road to the airport, and tortured by mobs, as in the case of a rape suspect ambushed by residents in a slum called Bairro da Paz.
While inequality has persisted, rising incomes and access to credit helped double Salvador’s car fleet over the past decade to more than 750,000. But with highway projects stalled or nonexistent, and parts of Salvador still filled with colonial-era cobblestone streets and alleyways, road rage is intensifying.
This city of 2.9 million (the metropolitan area has almost five million) was stunned in October by a traffic skirmish in Ondina, one of Salvador’s most exclusive residential districts, as video cameras captured a 45-year-old ophthalmologist in an S.U.V. running down two siblings on a motorcycle, crushing them to death against the fence of a hotel.
Complicating Salvador’s mobility challenges are the public transportation debacles symbolized by a lavishly expensive subway system that somehow has never functioned. Brazilian construction companies began building the subway’s huge pillars of reinforced concrete, designed for commuter trains imported from Asia, in 1997.
The Brazilian authorities spent hundreds of millions of dollars of public money on the project and auditors found big cost overruns, but it was not completed. Sixteen years after construction began, officials finally said in October that they would spend $600 million more to get it running, but only after the 2014 World Cup when other Brazilian cities plan to showcase new transit systems.
Faced with such disarray, some in Salvador try to deflect criticism by noting statistics that show other cities in northeast Brazil, including Maceió and João Pessoa, with higher per-capita murder rates. And Salvador’s cultural offerings remain sublime, fitting for a city that propelled some of Brazil’s greatest singer-songwriters, like Caetano Veloso, and filmmakers to fame.
But many here bemoan comparisons with Recife, another city in the region that is the political base of Eduardo Campos, a contender in next year’s presidential elections, and has a lively cultural scene that produced “Neighboring Sounds,” Brazil’s critically acclaimed submission in the Oscar race for the best foreign film.
Salvador’s malaise is tainting its once vibrant tourism industry. In Barra, a waterfront area where surfers still catch waves off sun-kissed beaches, an Italian owner of a small hotel was bludgeoned to death in late 2010. In October, a 15-year-old Brazilian touristwas killed in the old city center by a stray bullet from a gun battle.
Even Pelourinho, the colonial-era district rich in gilded churches and historical monuments, is not immune. The area, revitalized in recent decades, still draws visitors. But while a special police unit seeks to prevent muggings and assaults, it is now commonplace in parts of Pelourinho to see teenagers in ragged clothing smoking crack cocaine in broad daylight.
Shaken by such dystopian scenes, alongside well-guarded pockets of affluence, citizens are grasping for strategies to lift the city from its decline. Antônio Carlos Magalhães Neto, the mayor and scion of a prominent political dynasty, did not even flinch when asked whether Salvador had become a “failed city,” as some residents contend.
“We’re in the process of recovering from that condition,” the 34-year-old mayor said in an interview.
Since taking office this year, Mr. Neto said, he has put in motion measures to raise revenues by increasing property taxes and hired the business consulting firm McKinsey & Company to find ways of improving the efficiency of the municipal bureaucracy. He put much of the blame for Salvador’s woes on his predecessor, João Henrique Carneiro, whose approval ratings had dipped into single digits before he left office after eight years.
The government of Bahia State has also come under criticism, especially over its efforts to fight crime. Robinson Almeida, a spokesman for Gov. Jacques Wagner, said rising prosperity in Salvador, the state capital, had accentuated some problems because more people were now able to afford illegal drugs.
“We’re suffering from a boom in crack cocaine consumption,” said Mr. Almeida, citing the widespread availability of the drug and estimates that more than half of all homicides in Salvador involved drug-related disputes. In some of Salvador’s deadliest slums, he said, new policing programs had begun to lower homicide rates.
Still, a stroll one afternoon last month through a sprawling patchwork of slums, Nordeste de Amaralina, where, Mr. Almeida said, officials had increased the police presence, the tenuous nature of crime-fighting policies was apparent.
Even though Nordeste de Amaralina has a “Security Community Base,” as Salvador’s new police outposts are called, a teenage boy wielding an automatic handgun approached a reporter and a photographer, inquiring why they were interviewing residents and taking pictures of the community.
The journalists’ guide, Paulo César Barreto, 44, calmed the boy down, explaining that the plan was to speak with relatives of homicide victims in Nordeste de Amaralina. Then he showed the visitors the spot where his brother, Gilson Barreto, a 33-year-old doorman, was shot dead in 2008, not by criminals but by the police.
“After they killed him, the police stole his identity documents and his money,” said Mr. Barreto, whose family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the officers involved in the episode. Investigators say the police planted a gun on the victim, fabricating an account that he had fired on them.
In the same neighborhood in 2010, Joel da Conceição Castro, a 10-year-old boy, was shot in the head by the police in what was described as a botched operation against drug traffickers. Before he was killed, Joel had starred in a television commercial promoting tourism in Salvador.