Ryan Lochte and some fellow swimmers were robbed at gunpoint after a night out of celebrating. Lochte’s description of what happened sounded like a script from a crime drama. Having been to Rio, I am not surprised that it happened, but it likely didn’t happen on the strip but in some other part of Rio not so heavily policed. For the most part, from my own experience, I would describe Rio as a city, not unlike NYC, that is safe during the day and fairly safe at night when common sense practices are followed. Not that the swimmers didn’t follow common sense, in fact, they did the right thing by traveling in a group and taking a taxi, but unfortunately, they may have been targeted or watched and followed. The details are not fully known – for example, it is not clear whether their taxi was an official taxi, an Uber or some other ride-sharing operation. But in any case, I would guess that a Brazilian driver would know not to stop for a car unless it was reasonably clear that it was a police operation or that not stopping would result in being shot. Lochte said there were no lights, so I am assuming it was a car that pulled them over or pulled up to them in traffic and not a situation where they were in stop-and-go traffic and some guys with badges walked up to the taxi out of nowhere.
It all seems a bit odd, but where it happened clearly matters. If they were in a high risk crime area, maybe the driver knew that their lives were in danger and that he had no choice but to stop or be shot. We don’t know what the driver did; whether he tried to calm the theives or advise the guys to do whatever they were being told to do. It may turn out that the driver helped in some way to save their lives. But we may never know.
Does that mean don’t go to Rio or don’t take a taxi if you are already there. No. When I was there, I took city buses everywhere, which was quite an adventure and a taxi service to and from the airport. But I also had some local intelligence from a Rio resident and friend with whom we stayed. She rode the buses with us and set up the taxi rides from services she knows and trusts. We went out alone at night around Copocabana, (without our friend) but walked around in well lit areas and did not stray. We never dressed flashy or flaunted cash and jewelry. Not to say that the swimmers did. We actually went out of our way not to stand out – to blend. We even spoke mostly Spanish (we don’t speak Portuguese) so as not to be mistaken for rich and naive Americans who may not know that you can haggle over anything, even that trinket on the beach. We took many excursions during the day and felt perfectly safe. We even took a local bus through the favelas. Frankly, I was more concerned about misquitoes than criminals.
Admittedly, it is more difficult for Olympic athletes not to stand out, especially Ryan Lochte who is internationally known and who REALLY stands out in a crowd. He absolutely did the right thing by ultimately not resisting the thieves but had me worried as he described his initial refusal to go down as ordered. And according to his description, he actually never went down, and responded finally with “whatever” as he put his hands up. He really is lucky not to have been injured or worse. Thankfully, all the guys are ok. And as terrible as the stick up was, Rio is ok too. In fact, it’s a great place to visit and as safe as any other big city in Latin America or the U.S. Michael Phelps concurred when he mentioned that he had been to Brazil many times and has never felt unsafe.