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Once, when I was a teenager, some older guy pulled me aside, stared me in the face, pointed at me and said: "Promise me one thing. Never get married until you have been to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro."
I did not take his advice, and married without making the trip.
But for that and a zillion other reasons I have often wondered what Rio was really like.
Of course, cities and places change, and just last night I read a really amazing article in the New Yorker about how large chunks of Rio are wholly beyond government control. Fed up with the drug gangs, police, military police and firefighters have banded together to exact some extra-judicial revenge. Now those groups have become almost indistinguishable, in many cases, from the drug gangs.
Some of the facts and figures from an abstract of Jon Lee Anderson's article.
At least a hundred thousand people work for the drug gangs of Rio in a hierarchical structure that mimics the corporate world. The state is almost completely absent in the favelas. The drug gangs impose their own system of justice, law and order, and taxation-all by force of arms. Rio is the top-ranked city in the world for "violent international deaths," with just under five thousand murders last year, at least half of which were drug-gang related.
Although most people anywhere you go are tremendous and nice, this article sure made it sound like you'd be OK crossing Rio off your list of "must visit" places.
And then, today we learn that Rio de Janeiro and Madrid have bumped off Chicago and Tokyo as finalists to host the 2016 Olympics. So, I guess, Rio is very close to being back on the list for a lot of sports fans.
As for the beach? I wouldn't know.
UPDATE: Rio de Janeiro won the final round of voting, and will host the 2016 Olympics.