The “arrastão”: the role of race, stereotypes and apartheid on Rio’s beaches

Man suspect of an "arrastão" being arrested by beach police in Rio de Janeiro
Man suspect of an “arrastão” being arrested by beach police in Rio de Janeiro

Note from BW of Brazil: Beaches such as Ipanema and Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro are known worldwide for their beauty, view, sun and over atmosphere. But if you don’t live in Rio (or Brazil, in general) you’ve probably never heard of the “arrastão”, a scene of confusion that takes place on the beach when a group suddenly appears, snatches the valuables or personal items of beach-goers and then makes a run for it. Usually police join in the confusion grabbing suspects, putting people in headlocks, swinging batons, etc. Hardly a scene one wants to experience in an area that supposed be enjoyed for rest, relaxation, sun and waves. Let’s be clear here: stealing items of a beach is a definite no-no, but there are simply too many questions and complications of a social/racial nature involving the issue of the “arrastão” to end the discussion with such a statement (for a little more background on this issue, please see the previous article on the topic here). A recent piece by the US-based National Public Radio (NPR) didn’t come close to addressing any of these issues (please see a previous article on this topic also). As such, check the piece below. 

Guards attack a group on the Arpoador beach in Rio during an "arrastão"
Guards attack a group on the Arpoador beach in Rio during an “arrastão”

The arrastão and the return of ‘apartheid’

by Sylvia Debossan Moretzsohn* of Observatório da Imprensa

Rio authorities promise to search buses that run from the North Zone, check documents, send unaccompanied children under 10 years of age to the Conselho Tutelar (Child Protection) Council. But who would the “suspects” be?

Summer sun, crowded beaches. Suddenly, the “arrastão” (translated as “dragnet”): running, panic and beatings

Police, almost all black, beating boys in shorts, also almost all black.

The holiday of the Day of Black Consciousness, on Wednesday (November 20), could not have produced more iconic scenes. It was on Arpoador beach on the weekend that a similar occurrence would be registered. What do the authorities in Rio do? They promise to search buses that run from the North Zone, check the documents of “suspects”, refer to the Conselho Tutela minors under the age of 10 who are unaccompanied, and strengthen policing on the beachfront.

Arrastão: confusion in Rio de Janeiro

What does the newspaper do? It reproduces the role of promises without questioning their meaning and their chances of effectiveness. Just ask who would be “suspect”, although no one has to be very smart to have an idea. Or imagine how the Conselhos Tutelares would work, suddenly crowded with children. But most important, of course, is the placid acceptance of the establishment of this form of apartheid through restrictions on the right to come and go; and forgetting that history repeats itself, over twenty years later.

The necessity of looking back

In 1992, on the eve of the municipal elections in which a conservative (César Maia) would oppose a “black woman favelada (slum resident)” (Benedita da Silva) a PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores/Workers Party) candidate, a wave of arrastões  made ​​headlines and offered fertile ground for the overflow of all repressed prejudice against the poor and blacks (1). One of the measures, then, was precisely to control the access of subúrbio (outskirts, poor areas) residents to the beaches, with blockages in Leopoldina and in the Central and bus endpoints from Olaria, Penha, Jacaré and São Cristóvão. “Whoever doesn’t have documents, a shirt or money for round-trip tickets can not board the bus from the Zona Norte (North Zone) and from downtown to Zona Sul (South Zone), on weekends and sunny holidays,” O Globo reported on October 22, 1992.

Author of a doctoral thesis on racism in the Brazilian press, the researcher Dalmir Francisco was one of those that analyzed coverage of that famous arrastão “wave”. In a paper presented ten years ago (“Arrastão mediático e racismo no Rio de Janeiro” or “Media arrastão and racism in Rio de Janeiro”) demonstrated the consequences of those measures: the imposition of a “pass” for poor blacks, mestiços (mixed race) e brancos (whites), determining that the citizens of Zona Norte could only have access to Zona Sul if they are properly dressed and carrying money and documents; the creation of an area to be protected: the Zona Sul, “which was isolated”, and the creation of a territory that would be a source of insecurity for Zona Sul: Zona Norte, “which was besieged.”

Scene of an “arrastão” on a beach in Rio de Janeiro in November
Scene of an “arrastão” on a beach in Rio de Janeiro in November

Dalmir talked about apartheid by the “discrimination of a geographically and territorially located nonwhite group” and “the explicit intention of limiting the right to come and go, preventing or hindering, through procedures of humiliating repression of individuals going from one geographical and territorial space (Zona Norte) to another territorial and geographical space  (beaches of Zona Sul).”

The author notes that, at the end of the following week of these measures, “the beaches of Zona Sul were empty, heavily policed ​​and at no risk to a arrastão. The apartheid was efficient: “youth of humble appearance, walking on foot, by bus, no shirt and no money, who wanted to enter the territories of Leme, Copacabana, Arpoador, Ipanema and Leblon were barred.” Residents of favela slums of Cantagalo, Pavão, Pavãozinho and Chapéu Mangueira, which lie between Ipanema and Copacabana, “also decided not to come down.”

Young men accused of participation in an “arrastão”; rounded up by police
Young men accused of participation in an “arrastão”; rounded up by police

O Globo commemorated: “Domingo seguro revive magia de Ipanema (Secure Sunday revives magic of Ipanema).” In the text, the celebration of the return to an idyllic and idealized past, free of conflicts: “Just like old times; a day of light, a sun party and even the boats gliding in the soft blue of the sea. The glorious Sunday in Ipanema remembered the time that visiting it even rendered music.”

The delayed “war”

Another aspect mentioned in the reports of the time: the creation of militias formed by frequenters of gyms and martial arts fighters to combat the arrastões. Precisely as it is now, as noted Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, who distinguished herself for her in defense of street children in the episode of the Candelaria massacre in 1993. On her Facebook wall last week, she says she was walking along Copacabana when she witnessed the scene:

“At the height of Constante Ramos (street in Copacabana), a group of saradões (buffed guys) were exercising. Five other boys were walking down the boardwalk in a group. They were challenged by the saradões, who said: ‘come to do an arrastão, come on. All the groups of  Zona Sul are ready to catch every one of you.’ And as the saradões approached the group they ran toward Copacabana Avenue. I couldn’t stand it and went to talk to the boys from Zona Sul. They told me they made a commitment in the gyms via Facebook and electronic media, to unite against the arrastões on the beaches. They were prepared for this weekend. It will be a war and police will not have to give account.”

Police attended in mass, but the rainy weekend kept the (sun) bathers away. The war was postponed.

Note from BW of Brazil: So there are a number of issues to address here before anyone can jump to any conclusions. As mentioned in the intro, any type of robbery cannot be condoned, that goes without saying. But one must also consider a few things that aren’t being said. 

1. In a city of vast social inequalities such as Rio or any other major Brazilian city, what is really being done to address the poverty from which many of these kids come from? Do you think you could live on R$500 (US$250) per month? Just to get an idea, as the Brazilian consumer market is dominated by US items, the prices of general products are exuberant. An average pair of  Nikes can cost R$500. 

2. As reports have shown, most residents of the favelas are regular, hard-working people just trying to get by. With that in mind, how can authorities distinguish young people who simply want to enjoy a day at the beach from those who are indeed coming to cause trouble? Should all brown-skinned people have to pay the cost because of the few that wreak havoc?

3. As with favela invasions by Military Police in which innocent people are often murdered in a “war on drugs”, there are sure to be many incidents in which the wrong person is taken into custody. As reported in a recent arrastão (report and video courtesy of R7): 

“A group of teens promoted an arrastão in the late afternoon on Sunday (November 23) on Ipanema beach on the south side of the Rio. There was a lot of confusion and minors were arrested by military police on the boardwalk. Sun bathers gathered around the suspects and made several charges of theft. Some more exalted, tried assaulting teens. A man tried to throw a beach chair at one of the boys, but was restrained by police. The teens were taken to a police station in the region, but as no one came to press charges and as nothing was found on them, the group was released.”

Note from BW of Brazil: So here we have a situation of vast social inequalities with clear distinctions by race/color. A society in which the “haves” don’t like the “have nots” and fight against policies to make the system more just and then a mentality that associates criminality with anyone that looks like one of “them”. Ahh, Brazil….The place where people truly believe “we’re all equal” in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. Keep this in mind if you ever visit one of Rio’s beaches and your skin happens to be a little on the darker side of the color spectrum. 

* – Sylvia Debossan Moretzsohn is a journalist, professor at the Federal Fluminense University, author of Repórter no volante: O papel dos motoristas de jornal na produção da notícia (Editora Três Estrelas, 2013) and Pensando contra os fatos. Jornalismo e cotidiano: do senso comum ao senso crítico (Editora Revan, 2007)

Source: R7, Ad Vivo,


1992 Commercial of debate between Benedita da Silva and César Maia

1. Some political analysts argued that the “summer arrastão” led to da Silva’s defeat because the population believed that she had no pulse to control the riots produced by funkeiros or funk gangs.  Another theory postulated that “arrastão” had been planted on the beach to undermine the PT candidate’s election.

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.


  1. this site is amazing. my brother is moving to brazil for awhile and most of his friends that he met here and will be spending most of his time with over there are upper class, rich white brazilians. We are nigerians to be exact. The things he has told me that his white brazilian friends have said to him about race issues in brazil and about HIS own background makes me want to tear my hair out. He is opening his eyes more and more to the reality of people of african descent in brazil and I’ll be linking him to this post and this site so he sees the truth before his white brazilians try to feed him untruths from their bubble of privilege.

      • Thank you for your kind words! The objective is simply to expose the situation. As the glare of the image of summer, soccer, sex (and now the World Cup and Olympics) are often the only thing non-Brazilians know about the country, the blog seeks to explore other aspects as well as shine the spotlight on a people that the country’s own media continuously ignores. Please be sure to check the articles on African immigrants as well. While the nation has a lot of recent immigrants, one must ask why it is that Haitians and Africans have the most problems in terms of simply being accepted. I wonder why…

  2. If you think that the beaches of ipanema are all white then you haven’t been there. There is iniquity in Brazil for sure but neither are the favelas all black. There are many mixed race people there and it is not the simple black and white segregation of the USA. In order not to racially profile it is not unreasonable to ask someone coming off a bus without a shirt shoes pockets or a single R$ exactly HOW they expect to get back home if they are not going to steal something off the beach. When in cola I , like many residents take no watch, no shoes, no sunglasses nothing except for enough cash that would not be disSterous to lose. Either nothing or maybe enough to buy a water. If I bring any more I can’t swim unless I bring someone to take turns watching my spot on the beach. It is more than a “no no” to rob people in face to face crime. It is more than a no-no to swarm a beach with ak-47s. Or lob a hand grenade into a city bus full of people who are not rich. That’s mirder and assault. Sure part of the answer is to improve living conditions and reform the police and to provide service to the cast majority of favelados who are working hard to make a living in a corrupt society. but lets not blame the victims and lionize thieves and murderers. Let’s not pretend someone coming off a bus from so far away with no means to return is just a fun loving sun worshipper. The pipe traitors of violence share in both their responsibility and their legacy.

    • In fact, a number of articles address your comments. Two questions for you. 1) Two kids, one black (including mixed), one white both possible thieves, go to the beach. Which one will more than likely be harassed by the police? 2) You cannot analyze simply the scenario of the beach without analyzing the deep social/racial inequalities in Brazil’s structure that lead to such situations. Everyone wants to analyze the effects but never the causes. Analyzing relations on the beach in 2015 without understanding the concept of race, privilege and penalties connected to race in Brazil of the past five centuries impedes a complete analysis because you don’t look at how the society was structured this way and in fact continues to this day!

  3. This article was extremely interesting to me and new information I learned about Brazil. I have never heard of the group “arrastao.” It’s pretty disheartening that there are groups such as this that go to beautiful beaches, where families gather on the weekends and attack and steal their belongings. This article shows how even the police discriminate again people of darker skin color and sometimes even arrest the wrong people. So who do you turn to? The article even states, ” So here we have a situation of vast social inequalities with clear distinctions by race/color.” Once again the media also plays a large part of twisting and lacking information on situations as such. Brazil obviously still has some serious racial and social inequalities… How and where do you start to break those barriers down?

  4. It almost seems to me that the stealing is an act of retaliation. The way I understand it is that people that are lower on the social ladder because of socioeconomic circumstances go to beaches in which they know the wealthier are trying to get away and are protesting the fact that they get to enjoy an exuberant time, while only miles away crowded favelas and poverty dominate. The barring of people into the beaches also does not help. It’s unfortunate that people are not allowed, but it does not seem like the stealing is done just for the sake of stealing. It seems like there is tension, and it has gotten to the point in which crime has become the outlet. It is the younger kids who are doing the stealing, which makes the most sense as they see the inequality from living in a favela and the transition to luxury at the beaches, so the temptation lies in wanting to bring attention to their struggle.


  5. I am really surprised some of the differences in this article about how social stratification and geographical placement differs in some parts of Brazil as opposed to some parts of the U.S. One of the things that really surprised me is how many of the poor are skirted off to the outskirts of a metropolitian area, whereas in the U.S. the trend of White flight created conditions where many of the Black poor are confinded to the inner city with the wealthier (usually White) are able to create communities in the outskirts… which seems to be the oppositie of what has happened in Rio. In the U.S. the suburbs has a positive connotation but it at least seems like the subúrbios are looked at in a totally different light.

    Also, relating to points 2 and 3 above, is the reality that whenever a Black/Brown person commits an offense, it gives those in the power struggle free reign to discriminate against all Black/Brown people in the name of “safety.” This doesn’t work in reverse and apply to the dominant social group. It’s not like someone is not letting White men in corporate boardrooms for fear that they may squander millions in employee pensions. I feel for the mass majority of Black/Brown youth out there who are not committing offenses but are already being looked at as if they’re criminals. Without even taking into account economic disparities which can influence criminal behavior, we can look at labeling theory to see how this might correlate with an increased number of incidents.

  6. This situation is tough, on one hand looting and robbing people can not be condoned, but on the other hand, it’s obvious that a good number of these robberies are a form of protest to a bigger issue. The clear discrimination against the poor to have access to these locations is something that is not being addressed, but also is being ignored when accusing the “arrastao’s” of committing these actions for no reason. Also how those in power have used these actions as an excuse to say “See! this is why we need to keep these poor out, they are dangerous and can not be controlled”. To me there needs to be change to these discriminatory policies, but also a change on how to protest these policies. The robberies are an extension of frustration from the oppressed which is understandable frustration, but the fact the media and those in power have been able to easily spin a negative face on this, shows how ineffective these acts are in the long run. The oppressed need to unit and find a more effective solution, something that puts more spotlight on the discriminatory policies and less on the actual protest actions.

  7. To Joe: Gatasnegrasbrasilerias acknowledged your point twice in this particular post, but apparently they didn’t condemn it with strong enough language. They’re not, however, erecting a moral defense of individuals who resort to criminal behavior. That was point of the caveat up front.

    The film about the Ônibus 174 incident (called Ônibus 174) helps put some of this in perspective, I think. At one point a sociologist is speaking about “social invisibility.” And about how the Sandros have been made invisible twice over, 1) because their presence is ignored and 2) because they’ve been highly stigmatized and caricaturized as criminals. Then a few street kids on camera explain, in their words, what that battle against invisibility does to them psychologically and emotionally.

    We’ve got a saying in the United States, it works in Brazil, too. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Gatasbrasileirasnegras are not lionizing thieves and murderers. That would be ridiculous. But they are, quite articulately, exploring the why and the how, and what exactly we should hate about the game.

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