A block from FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s hotel and two hours before the Brazil vs Croatia kick-off game of World Cup on June 12, police in Rio de Janeiro raided Balcony Bar, a popular destination for gringos to meet sex workers, and closed it for business indefinitely, leaving hundreds of tourists, women and transvestites confused and milling around Copacabana Beach.
Two hours later, as thousands of soccer fans congregated across the street to watch the kick-off at the FIFA Fan Fest big screen on Copacabana Beach, police arrived at Balcony Bar in the same car as a film crew from Brazil’s media monopoly Globo, which also broke the news of the Balcony shut-down that morning, to give details of the accusations in an exclusive television interview.
A civil policeman from the Tourism Department revealed to Globo that a minor had accused the Balcony Bar owner of asking her to recruit other women to come and eat free meals and be available for gringos.
There’s just one catch — Balcony Bar is not a brothel, nor does the establishment make any money off of transactions between clients and sex workers.
It’s a restaurant and bar, with a regular rotation of crappy rock cover bands and a 5AM breakfast buffet with french toast, bagels and lox, and an infamous destination in Copacabana beach for gringos to meet prostitutes ever since the even more infamous Help Discoteque shut down a few years ago down the street.
The establishment takes no responsibility for what restaurant patrons discuss at its tables, nor does it card women who appear to be sex workers to see if they’re 18 or over.
And the owner, a foreigner named David Eger, has a history of giving out free food to everyone.
Rio sex anthropologist Thaddeus Blanchette said Edger gives out free cocktail hour snacks at 5 PM, and “almost certainly paid street kids to circulate flyers to drum up business mentioning the free food — for tourists, police, everyone.”
Blanchette is an organizer of the Observatory of Prostitution/UFRJ, a research project from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s urban ethnography lab to monitor what happens to Rio’s sex workers during the World Cup. He’s spent the last decade with anthropologist Ana Paula da Silva researching Rio’s sex industry.
Blanchette says the Balcony raid on June 12 is an about-face for Rio police, who fined Edger in 2009 for trying to bar an underage transvestite from entering Balcony Bar.
“They told him that he couldn’t discriminate against sex workers, trans people or even minors, as long as it was during the day,” said Blanchette. “Now, the cops are saying that he should kick everyone he feels is a prostitute right out of the bar.”
As recently as 2010, police stationed outside of Balcony Bar demonstrated little concern for child sexual exploitation.
Blanchette said that during the 2010 World Cup, he saw a girl who looked clearly underage at a table with male tourists and told a waitress and manager at Balcony, who said they couldn’t do anything about it as it was daytime, and they were seated in the restaurant area, and not at the bar.
Balcony management directed him to the police stationed next to the restaurant, who Blanchette said “shrugged his shoulders and said he could do nothing.”
“When I said yes he could, that I was a Federal University professor who worked on this topic and that I would happily testify in court that I heard the person in question negotiating for sex with the two girls, he said 'It's still pretty much your word against his and I can't arrest people for just sitting at a table with children.”
All of which raises the question of whether Rio police are making a concerted effort to combat child sexual exploitation, or are just keeping up appearances for World Cup tourists.
The prosecutor in the case against Balcony admitted as much, accusing the bar of reinforcing a denigrating image of Brazil as a country where sex tourism is permitted, and calling on Rio police to take energetic action to combat it during World Cup.
“The closing of Balcony Bar and the Brazilian Public Ministry’s justification for it sends a clear political message to sex workers and fans of the World Cup: those involved in implementing policies to “prepare” the country for the World Cup care more about what tourists see and think than what tourists actually do,” says Laura Murray, a researcher with the Observatory of Prostitution and Co-Executive Secretary of sex worker rights non-profit Davida.
It’s a political policy that is putting Rio police in direct conflict with the city’s legally working sex workers, who for their part, hope to benefit from a bump in business as 400,000 foreigners and millions of Brazilians descend upon Rio for a month of non-stop World Cup games.
In the first week of the World Cup, the client influx has yet to materialize.
According to the Observatory of Prostitution/UFRJ, which has been monitoring key sex venues for every day of World Cup, there has been no increase in prostitution due to World Cup — ironically, except for at venues near Balcony Bar where the FIFA Fan Fest is happening, in a part of Copacabana Beach that has long been a destination for gringos looking to pay for sex.
Business is down by as much as 50 percent in luxury brothels like the Monte Carlo, and movement in the red light district, a popular venue for local working-class men, is one third of its usual flux.
Some brothel owners from the red light district to downtown “fast fuck” venues — famous for a quick in and out pricing scheme — have even closed their doors due to poor business. But in the plaza next to Balcony Bar’s dark windows, the Observatory of Prostitution has counted as many as 60 women and transvestites mingling with 150 foreigners.
Sex Tourism Is Legal
Despite efforts from Rio police and President Dilma to discourage sex tourism over World Cup, sex tourism is actually completely legal in Brazil.
Sex worker rights NGO Davida clarifies: “Adult women and men that offer sexual services can attend to Brazilians or foreigners, without this constituting any type of crime, on either one’s part.”
Prostitution has never been a crime in Brazil, where sex workers have been politically organized since the 1980’s, and sex work is a federally recognized occupation with entitlement to social security benefits since 2002.
But Brazilian law criminalizes any third party who benefits from the sexual transaction, whether they’re pimps, brothel owners or even private security guards, creating a legal grey area in which police can raid brothels - whenever they feel like it.
And police in Rio de Janeiro have a hundred year history cracking down in the name of image improvement, according to research by Blanchette and historian Christiana Schettini.
Rio police inadvertently created the city’s first red light district in 1920 to welcome King Albert of Belgium; it gained walls during Queen Elizabeth II’s visit in 1968, and for a period of time, police officially took control from madams and operated the brothels themselves.
In the city’s preparations to host this summer’s World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, police have once again been on an image-cleansing campaign to keep the city’s (legally working) sex workers out of sight.
According to Blanchette and anthropologist Ana Paula da Silva, Rio police have closed 36 of Rio’s 279 sex venues, concentrating their efforts on tourist epicenter Copacabana Beach and the rapidly gentrifying downtown district.
A rash of raids at the UN Rio+20 conference in 2012 shuttered a dozen upscale sex venues popular with tourists and levied similarly serious accusations of sex trafficking, but all of the venues re-opened shortly after the conference ended.
A judge on the case of the Monte Carlo, one of the brothels targeted in the Rio+20 raids, went so far as to accuse the prosecution of a hygienization campaign, and dropped all charges for lack of evidence.
On May 23, a particularly violent police raid of a building where sex workers lived and worked across the bay from Rio in the city of Niterói prompted sex worker protests in World Cup host cities from Rio to Belo Horizonte, affirming their legal right to work and calling for increased regulation of their industry — not repression.
Women arrested in the Niterói raid gave accounts that their homes were broken into, and that they were robbed, and in some cases, beaten and forced to perform oral sex on police officers.
A hearing on June 4 organized by Brazil’s Human Rights Commission and the Commission for the Defense of Women’s Rights brought public defenders, lawyers, sex workers, activists from sex worker non-profit Davida, and members of the Observatory of Prostitution, but did not include anyone from the civil police force or the precincts involved in the raids.
When VICE News asked the civil police of tourism who gave an exclusive interview to Globo condemning Balcony Bar on June 12 why the civil police were absent at the raid, he clarified that it involved a different precinct, and that he wasn’t saying what did or didn’t happen, but that prostitutes often give accounts of police violence and rape, but “they’re not credible.”
Remarkably, police politics may be just as much in play at the Balcony Bar raid as the city’s aggressive image-cleansing campaign.
A source close to Edger who declined to be identified said that Rio police have been pressuring him to pay off bribes since 2009, and told him they would close the bar down if he refused to pay.
Meanwhile, police were observed this week in Rio directing tourists to Barbarella, a Copacabana strip club that charges clients a “bar fine” to take women outside of the club for sex.
All photos by Julie Ruvolo