Julie Ruvolo

Before it hosts the World Cup and the Summer Olympics, the city is taking aim at brothels long popular with tourists.

RIO DE JANEIRO — On the eve of June 14, as tourists streamed into town for the highly publicized Rio+20 Conference, armed members of the Copacabana Police Precinct and Rio’s public prosecutor’s office arrived at a brothel called Centauros, in the heart of Ipanema Beach.

They arrested prostitutes, management and the owner, seized documents, computers and used condoms, and walked out with $150,000 dollars in cash.

The owner of the brothel spent a week at a maximum security prison.

The prostitutes were released the same night and found work at other upscale brothels like the Monte Carlo in Copacabana and 65 downtown, according to a former employee, but some complained they weren’t earning as much.

Quite a lot of drama when you consider that prostitution is not actually a crime in Brazil. The Ministry of Labor has recognized prostitution as an official occupation since 2002.

But as Rio de Janeiro prepares for its turn on the global stage – as the host of the World Cup in 2014, then the 2016 Summer Olympics – the city is taking drastic action to keep its thriving sex industry out of the spotlight.

Centaurus brothel in Ipanema (Julie Ruvolo)

Rio has already shuttered 24 sex establishments in the rapidly gentrifying downtown and tourist-friendly South Zone neighborhoods. Another 33 venues have been threatened or harassed by the police. The Rio+20 raid included Centauros and another dozen of the most popular sex venues foreigners frequent, including several strip clubs that employ prostitutes.

It’s the biggest crackdown on prostitution in a generation.

This is according to anthropologists Thaddeus Blanchette and Ana Paula da Silva, who have been studying prostitution in Rio since 2004 and have authored almost 20 academic papers on Rio’s sex industry.

They also maintain a database of over 50,000 reports of where people pay for sex in Rio, scraping a decade’s worth of self-identified patrons from four major sex tourism websites, including pricing data and reviews of service. Blanchette and da Silva have verified 279 different addresses comprising a sprawling map of sex in Rio. But to really get a sense of the industry’s scale, consider that one point on their map can stand for multiple venues, such as the red light district, which constitutes a cluster of close to 80 houses and over a thousand prostitutes.

Visiting foreigners tend to frequent the same short list of sex establishments, making the dozen venues in the Rio+20 raids easy targets for what a local judge called a “hygienistpolicy motivated by the World Cup. According to Blanchette and da Silva’s database, 80 percent of Rio’s foreign tourists report frequenting the same 20 venues, and 65 percent of them visit the same ten.

Since prostitution is not a crime in Brazil, the city has had to find other reasons to conduct its raids. Not that they’ve had to look far, since profiting from prostitution — whether you’re a brothel owner or an otherwise normal bar that prostitutes frequent — is a crime.

That means Rio’s myriad sex establishments all stay open at the mercy of the current administration, and not without paying a price. “We all know that certain police officials get a handsome chunk of change from the high-end termas as silent partners,” Blanchette says. “At the Monte Carlo brothel, they went in at the precise moment that a local cop official was there, presumably to pick up the cash.”

Which is, of course, illegal. So Blanchette prefers to say that prostitution is “not illegal” in Rio.

The official warrant for the Rio+20 raids cited corruption alongside a laundry list of darker accusations, including “sexual exploitation of adolescents, money laundering to mafioso groups, drug trafficking, possession of firearms and police corruption... among others.” But not before first criticizing “a certain tolerance and indifference to brothels.”

Balcony Bar on Copacabana's beachfront (Julie Ruvolo)

That tolerance and indifference is apparently shared by Centauros’ neighbors in upscale Ipanema, who protested the raid. One neighbor told me of a petition her neighbors were circulating in favor of re-opening the brothel, “because there have been some little robberies around here and people feel the Centauros security prevented this before.”

Then, on August 21, long after the Rio+20 press died down, Centauros re-opened.

This week, a local judge cleared the owners of the Monte Carlo, one of the brothels targeted in the raid, of all charges. The judge also accused Rio’s public prosecutors of an anti-prostitution crusade after they asked the court to intervene “in order to contribute to changing [the citys] much maligned image.”

In some ways, Rio’s image-cleansing campaign is nothing new.  The city has a history of warring with its prostitutes when tourists come to town that stretches over 100 years, as Blanchette and Argentine professor Cristiana Schettini detail in an upcoming academic paper.

When King Albert of Belgium came to town in 1920, police rounded up the city’s lower-class prostitutes, arrested them and moved them out of sight to the outskirts of the city, inadvertently forming Rio’s first red light district.

In 1968, police literally boarded up the red light district, then in its second location, to hide it from the view of Queen Elizabeth II’s procession through the city.

With two years to go till the World Cup kickoff,  Blanchette and da Silva have already counted 24 sex establishment shut-downs: most of them in the last eight months, most of them eyesores, and all of them in what is now prime real estate in the rapidly gentrifying downtown district and touristy South Zone, home to Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.

But the Rio+20 raids broke from the expected profile and specifically targeted relatively pricey venues frequented by foreigners. Particularly Centauros.

“I was shocked,” Blanchette says. “Centauros has consistently been in the top 10 places visited by sex tourists in Rio de Janeiro for at least the last 10 years. It is the most expensive venue frequented by foreigners in any number and also one of the oldest termas (sauna brothels) in town.”

But there was also Help!, a beachfront disco in Copacabana that was the top destination for foreigners to rendezvous with prostitutes for a solid decade until Governor Sergio Cabral closed it down in 2010 to make room for the Museum of Imagery and Sound, still awaiting construction two years later.

In the Cinelândia cultural district downtown, Rio’s oldest and most active prostitutes rights group, Davida, was evicted to make way for a boutique hotel by a French hotelier. The building, appropriately, is a former brothel called Hotel Paris.

Help! disco in Copacabana before it closed in 2010 (Photo: Thaddeus Blanchette)

The prostitute district in Praça Mauá, servicing the port area, is slated for eviction to make way for a multi-billion dollar port renovation project.

So is the dilapidated red light district, where prices bottom out at under $1 per minute, to make way for a bullet train to Sao Paulo if Rio can get it financed. In April the city bull-dozed a handful of lunch counters and bars guilty of code violations, including one owned by a former prostitute I spoke with who saw her new livelihood vanish overnight.

Police are threatening prostitutes who post fliers in public pay phones with 15 years in prison for "destruction of public property.” Earlier this year, the Tourism Ministry asked over 2,000 websites to remove content promoting Brazil as a destination for sex tourism.

“There will be criticisms,” Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes recently told The Economist, “but the city’s image is being transformed.”

What remains to be seen is just how far Rio will go to exclude its prostitutes from the picture.

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