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Brazzil - Crime - February 2004

Mugged in Brazil

Bit by bit I was losing the struggle. He was taller and bigger
than me. I couldn't hold onto my rucksack any longer. Soon
he had it. Everything I had was in my rucksack, including
and most importantly, my money belt, with my money, credit
card, plane ticket and identification. I didn't know what to do.

Guy Burton

This week my new flatmate moved in. He decided he wanted to live in Bethnal Green because it was safer. Last year he was assaulted outside his front door at midday. Little wonder then he decided to leave Hackney. Even in London being mugged on your doorstep is still a rare occurrence. In Brazil, by contrast, most people imagine this is much more likely to happen. Indeed, my family and I have personal experience of it.

Five years ago, my brother was accosted as he made his way back to where he was staying in the middle-class Rio neighbourhood of Ipanema. Unfortunately for him he stood out, since he was tall and pale—and his Portuguese wasn't as fluent as it is now.

As he was walking home, a young man came up to him and prodded something into his back. "Don't do anything stupid," he hissed, "just act normal and carry on walking. We're friends, you see."

My brother didn't try and look around. He didn't know what was in the man's hand and neither did he want to risk challenging him. It was early evening and they walked past the porteiro, who was sitting at the entrance to the apartment block without his registering what had happened.

Once in the flat my brother's assailant produced a knife. "Give me money," he demanded, but there wasn't any to be had. All there was were travellers cheques, which only my brother could cash. "I'll be back tomorrow. Don't try anything. I know where you live," he warned.

My brother wasn't going to take this lying down and told my father when he came through the door a few hours later. The police came around and took some questions. "I don't think he try coming back," they said to my father and brother languidly. "But just in case, we'll have someone here."

Sure enough, the following day he returned and was snatched by the waiting policeman. Down to the delegacia they all went where the young man confessed at once. "He's from a nearby favela. Don't worry, we know how to handle these types," the police officer told my father when he asked what they should do; the would-be criminal now knew where my family was staying. "We'll make sure he doesn't do it again."

My father was hesitant. The safety of his family was paramount, but some police officers have a brutal reputation. Indeed, illegal executions occasionally occur while Brazil's incarceration system was condemned by Amnesty just a few years ago. My father made clear his concerns that nothing wrong be done to the young man.

My brother having been through such a traumatic experience, we were all on edge afterwards. A few months later, I was in Brazil, travelling through the south of the country. After a long nine-hour bus journey from Curitiba, I finally arrived on a late Friday afternoon in Foz de Iguaçu. Foz is a border town between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay and is famous for the waterfalls which separate the three countries.

My parents tell me that when they visited soon after their marriage in the early 1970s the town was little more than a main street. Today it is a city, through which a large amount of contraband flows through.

But it wasn't smuggling which I came into contact with, but a far more mundane crime, of mugging.

Despite being aware and alert, particularly after my brother's recent experiences, I still walked into it. Having caught a local bus into town, I missed my stop. No matter, I thought, I'll just get off at the next one, take a turning and double-back on myself to the street I want. And once I was in the seclusion of my room I would take my money belt out of my rucksack and put it on under my clothes; I hadn't done so till then because it had been uncomfortable with it on during the long coach journey from Curitiba.

I walked down a street which appeared at first glance to be relatively well-kept. On one side were old street houses, on the other what looked like a park. A tall young man in a yellow T-shirt was carrying a plastic bag and walking in the same direction as me. I passed him and approached a corner. On the other side of the street was a barraco, where a group of three or four men were sitting outside, drinking beer and playing cards.

They looked up as I approached and one in a white shirt waved to me. I ignored him and continued walking. He called out and seeing me turning around the corner got up from his game and ran towards me, calling out and with his hand underneath his shirt. He stopped in front of me, blocking me from advancing any further. He was wide-eyed and speaking quickly, his hand under his shirt jabbed towards me in an intimidating manner.

This has to be a joke? I thought. If he had a knife or gun why would he have it under his shirt? But what if he did? I didn't want to challenge him. I looked over at his friends by the barraco. They were averting their eyes, returning to their game. I felt uncomfortable and turned to go back down the road from which I'd come. But my path was blocked there too; the tall young man in the yellow T-shirt had stopped right behind me and now he refused to let me pass.

He grabbed hold of my rucksack and tried to wrestle it off me. Meanwhile the instigator was going into my pockets, taking my wallet and ran. I continued to struggle with my other assailant, whose nails were digging into me—or was it a knife? As we grappled a housewife drove past in her car, slowing down to look. I looked her in the face and tried to yell, but I couldn't. I was in shock. She drove on. The men next to the barraco played on. No one was going to help.

Bit by bit I was losing the struggle. He was taller and bigger than me. I couldn't hold onto my rucksack any longer. Soon he had it and disappeared among the trees behind the barraco.

My mind was a blank. Everything I had was in my rucksack, including and most importantly, my money belt, with my money, credit card, plane ticket from Foz to Rio and identification. I didn't know what to do, other than to get away from the scene of my mugging. I ran back down the road towards the bus stop, where moments earlier I had stepped off with such caution.

A young couple in matching red T-shirts were standing at the bus stop. Not knowing what to do, I went up to them breathless. "I've been mugged," I said, "Can you help me?" I was shaking and feeling cold. I was in a strange city with nothing—nowhere to stay, no way to leave and certainly no way of letting my father know, who was probably leaving work for the weekend several hundred miles away in Rio.

Police in Action

While the girl sat with me to calm me down, her boyfriend went to the nearby telephone box and called the police. Within minutes a large yellow and black jeep pulled up. Out came three officers, dressed in black and wearing what looked suspiciously like flack jackets. One was wearing sun glasses, all had revolvers in holsters around their waists. Another held a rifle in his arms.

"So you were mugged?" one of them asked. "Was he black?" Racial profiling seemed to be the Paraná state police's common approach to dealing with robberies.

I gave descriptions of the two assailants before the officers piled into the jeep and carried on down the street to the barraco. I was still shaking and looked around. There was no immediate danger around me; there were sympathetic glances. Someone offered me a can of Coke but I couldn't drink it; my mouth felt dry.

Moments later the bumble bee-coloured jeep returned. The officers stepped out and moved to the back of the jeep which they opened. There were four suspects all sitting there. "Which of these men was it?" the original officer said to me. I looked and realised my mind was playing tricks on me. I was convinced the young man with the yellow T-shirt which I had seen walking along the street ahead of me was white and unshaven.

I was sure his T-shirt was ripped. But sitting with his face away from me was another, very different individual. He was certainly wearing a yellow T-shirt, but it was new. But he wasn't white as I remembered him; he was mixed, but not dark enough to be considered black. And he was clean-shaven.

The others I could rule outright. One stared at me, in stark contrast to the man in the yellow T-shirt. He looked at me in the eye, defying me to label him a criminal. He had nothing to hide, he seemed to say, and I agreed with him.

One by one I ticked them off. Three of them were not those I'd run into earlier. But the fourth, the clean-shaven man with the new yellow T-shirt. Was it him? I couldn't be sure. My new friends took me to one side. "Is it him?" they asked. "I think so," I said, "but I can't be absolutely sure. He won't look at me, unlike the others, but the description I gave doesn't exactly match what I see in front of me."

"Let me tell you something," the boyfriend said. "If you say nothing, or say it wasn't him, they'll let him go. And you'll be left with nothing. If you're bothered by it you can say that it could be him. Then leave it to them."

It was difficult to say with any conviction the suspect sitting in the back of that police jeep was one of the two men who had robbed me. But I had to weigh this up with the fact that I had lost everything, in a city a long way from home and my family. Reluctantly, I responded as the boyfriend suggested. "It could be him," I said.

Things then moved quickly. The three other suspects were free to go; the other remained. The door was closed and the officers leapt back into the jeep and drove off, although where they didn't say. Like my father a few months earlier, I wondered what they might do to this opportunist. Soon the jeep was back again, this time with an officer brandishing my rucksack triumphantly.

"He confessed as soon as we took him away," he said. "Check out the contents and then we'll go down to the delegacia." I looked through the bag—most of my clothes were there, but that wasn't what they were after. My walkman had disappeared, but it was a cheap model. I searched and found my money belt. The money—a few hundred reais—was gone, but my credit card was still there, as was my identification and my plane ticket from Foz to Rio.

Relief flooded through me. I thanked my saviours and the officers busied me into the jeep. There were reports to write, bureaucratic procedures to go through. Down to the delegacia we drove, one half of my assailants sitting behind me, sullen. I felt his glare through the wire grill, imagining he was remembering my features should he ever run into me in the future.

At the delegacia we waited to go through the recording process. My mugger was made to sit down in one corner of the room while I sat opposite. As I suspected, he was staring at me, a look of anger and bitterness twisting his features. It was almost as if he was blaming me for having landed him in the police station. I asked if I might be excused; if there was somewhere else I could wait where I wouldn't see him and before I needed to make my statement.

One of the officers came to sit next to me. I was a novelty to them, an Anglo-Brazilian who spoke Portuguese with an accent and who lived in London. I asked him whether street robberies were common. "Yes, it happens because there is so much inequality. Few people have money and they turn to crime. As Foz gets bigger the more it happens.

"But it's not only criminals who have little money. The police don't get paid much," he continued. "As well as this I also work in private security to increase my income. That's the only way I can look after my wife and kids."

And that is why crime is a problem in Brazil. The country is one of the most economically unequal on the planet, with a tiny percentage of the population living a lifestyle similar to that in North America or Europe while the vast majority struggles to survive.

Crime and Poverty

The growth of the cities has seen a corresponding increase in favelas, where the poor live. During the 1980s the failure to tackle social problems facing the poor resulted in increasing levels of street crime and robberies: one friend even got held up at gun point for his shoes.

With few prospects, many dropped out of society, living on the streets and stealing to maintain themselves. But the government failed to tackle these problems effectively. Instead of trying to analyse the causes of the problem and prescribe solutions accordingly, governments favoured a tough law-and-order approach.

Police cracked down on the marginalised with the middle class's apparent acceptance. The favelas were seen as the source of the problem, where criminals roamed the street and where the police occasionally invaded. The fact that there were many poor and honest workers living in the favelas seemed to go unnoticed.

This was helped in part by the Brazilian middle class's decision to turn its back on the problems facing society. Indeed, they seemed determined to secure personal security for themselves at the expense of everyone else, putting up walls around their houses, installing iron gates in front of their apartment blocks, placing surveillance cameras outside their homes and hiring 24-hour security.

While the middle class set about creating a form of what the former Minister of Education, Christovam Buarque, has called `social apartheid', the absence of government efforts to improve quality of life for the poor ensured the growing crime wave of the 1980s would go on.

Government's failure to build housing, pave the streets and provide sanitation in the favelas opened the door to the drug lords and gangs. They took on the role of government, providing residents with these amenities—but at a price. They bought their silence and the right to operate in and out of the favelas. The result was a disaster, effectively turning Brazil into two countries.

The only time favela-dwellers ever experienced more conventional government was at the hands of the police, who periodically invade to arrest criminals they suspect to be hiding there. Invariably someone suffers the consequences, with plenty of innocent people being shot by one or other side.

All this has helped to brutalise Brazilian society. The police are convinced they are engaged in a war against crime while those who suffer directly at the hands of criminals and police continue to build themselves ivory towers.

What Can Be Done?

And yet maybe things are beginning to change. In 1993, a vigilante group composed of off-duty police officers and right-wing activists executed several street children outside the main cathedral in Rio, the Candelária. The outrage, both at home and abroad, encouraged a need to scrutinise the workings of the police and clamp down on such action.

In 2002, one of the main election issues was public security—a concern which the winning Workers Party stated could only be achieved if Brazilians stopped isolating themselves and acted together. When organised crime managed to shut down the city centre of Rio around the time of the 2003 Carnaval, many observers realised it was time to act to address the problem of crime.

Indeed, since then there has been a flurry of activity. Since 2000, the nationwide Viva Rio campaign has been up and running, with more than a million signing its petition to ban the sale of small arms in Brazil. And while I was in Rio in August last year I sensed an eagerness by Brazilians to understand the cause of these problems.

Bookshop displays—insofar as Brazilians read—were full of books analysing social problems and crime. Caco Barcellos's Rota 66 (Route 66) examines police brutality and crime in São Paulo, while the more recent Abusado (Abused) is a biography of Juliano VP, a drug lord in Rio's Santa Marta favela.

Sitting next to these books was one by Paulo Lins, whose novel about life in the favela, City of God, was turned into a film last year. Indeed, should the film's director, Fernando Meirelles, win the award for Best Director at this year's Oscars, yet another step will have been taken towards public awareness and understanding of the social problems facing Brazil.

Guy Burton was born in Brazil and now lives in London. He has written on a range of subjects for Brazzil and co-wrote a chapter on the Workers Party administrations in the Federal District and Espirito Santo state for Gianpaolo Baiocchi's Radicals in Power (London: Zed Books, 2003). He can be contacted at gjsburton@hotmail.com.

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