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Ransom country

Kidnapping used to be something rare in Brazil. In 1980, for example, there was a single such episode. But since 1990, the number of abductions has been growing so much that is a rare day in which someone is not kidnapped. In 1990 there were 91 kidnappings. By 1994 this number had grown to 141. And you don't have to be rich anymore to be a victim.

Carlos Ravelo

Kidnapping for ransom in Brazil is big business. In a country that is no longer surprised by most types of criminality, the recent kidnappings for ransom of three young students from wealthy Carioca (from Rio) families, definitely caused social shock-waves.

It made rich and poor, right and left join hands and go to the streets of Rio to take part on Reage Rio (React, Rio) at the end of November. The manifestation reunited tens of thousands of Cariocas. They were 150,000 according to the march's organizers, and 60,000 according to the police.

Within less than a 12-hour period, on October 25, 1995, Eduardo Eugênio Gouvêa Vieira Filho, Marcos Fernando Chiesa and Carolina Dias Leite, sons and daughter of the rich and famous, were all kidnapped in various areas of Rio de Janeiro.

The operations were done in broad daylight, in the presence of well-paid bodyguards, by heavily armed hoodlums operating in a synchronized military-style maneuvers. In fact, one victim was whisked away barely 100 yards from a police station, and another was taken from the doors of an exclusive private school.

The political impact of those three kidnappings was felt almost immediately. Rio governor Marcelo Alencar summoned several high-ranking officials for an emergency meeting, amongst them Civil Police chief Hélio Luz, and Paulo Roberto Maiato, the recently appointed head of the Divisão Anti-Seqüestros or anti-kidnapping unit.

Further complicating matters are the long-standing allegations that many of the kidnappers who are caught, are later subjected to a practice called mineira, which is extorting the proceeds of the kidnappings from the kidnappers themselves.

"Most of those kidnappings would not be taking place if it weren't for the practice of mineira," says Police Chief Hélio Luz. The practice originated in the state of Minas Gerais, when fazendeiros (cattle owners) contracted off-duty police officers to eliminate cattle rustlers or squatters.

The use of mineira has thus also contaminated some sectors of the police corps in Rio as well. Even many of those honest police officers who do not themselves practice the mineira, find vicarious justification for this practice by their colleagues.

Says one high-ranking official of Rio's police: "Placing a police officer who barely earns $300 a month together with a hoodlum who can bribe him with $30,000, is like placing corn with a rooster." (Or, as is commonly said in English, like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.)

Further complicating the matter is the fact that this type of crime under color of law is very difficult to prove. Reason? Most of the victims are themselves engaged in illegal activities as well; from kidnapping, to drug trafficking to carjackings and robbery.

Surely, once they are hit for cash, it is very improbable that they will file a complaint against whichever officer extorted him, much less so if they know who they are.

Part of the problem relating to the streak of Carioca kidnappings has to do with the concern held by government authorities that it might scare off new investments in the state, particularly now that the local and national economy has begun to take off, after years of stagnation and hyper-inflation.

One case in particular that of Eduardo Eugênio Gouvêa Vieira, had extremely negative connotations. Eduardo is the son of Eduardo Gouvêa, president of Federação das Indústrias do Rio de Janeiro (FIRJAN), a federation of Rio's industrial complex.

The kidnapping put the federation's investment program advertising on hold. The program intended to attract investments of up to $22 billion into Rio state. Projections indicate that close to 400,000 new jobs could be generated by this plan by the year 2000, helping to bolster the local economy.

Many in Rio have been fearing including Gouvêa himself that the recent upsurge in kidnappings and the wide exposure that it has received in local and foreign news media, will hinder the Federation's efforts to promote the city and state as a safe place to live and invest in.

According to Carioca sociologist Rubens Cezar Fernandes, who coordinates the Movimento Viva Rio, which is carrying out a campaign against criminality and violence in the Cidade Maravilhosa, the kidnappings will continue for some time to come.

DIFFERENT STROKES — Although the majority of the kidnappings that have taken place until now have been leveled against the so-called heavyweight families of executives and industrialists, many middle-class families and small or mid-level businessmen have also been the targets of the kidnappers. In fact, aside from outright kidnappings, there are also extortion schemes geared towards scaring the would-be victims into paying up a smaller amount, as to not be actually kidnapped, sort of a protection bond.

Many are simply called by phone and forced to pay-up, or else. The sums: between $30,000 to $40,000 on average. In the case of Carolina Dias Leite, the quick reaction of an anonymous caller, and the availability of Disque-Denúncia (Inform-a-Call), a new number for placing information on crimes witnessed or suspected, saved the day.

The availability of that number has helped police investigations immensely. A caller contacted the Regimento de Polícia Montada (Mounted Police) and Carolina was located soon after by the Police. In Carolina's case, the result was a happy ending, but not all endings are happy.

Daniel Ferreira Barata, son of a well-known industrialist was found dead, buried in a shallow grave. Barata had been kidnapped at his work site in front of more than 20 employees. A band of eight well-armed bandits forced their way into the company, asked who he was, and indicated that all would be shot if he did not come forward and identify himself. He did, for the sake of his employees. Ransom negotiations started almost immediately, but the kidnappers fumbled for 13 days, because the family kept requesting evidence of him being alive.

On December 30, 1994, the kidnappers made their final call. At the same time, the police received information that bad odors were coming from an abandoned house in São Gonçalo, in the Greater Rio. Neighbors confirmed that they had seen a man handcuffed, going into and out of the same house for several days, but did not want to intervene. On the 30th they heard some screams, and a few days later the worse was confirmed. Daniel had his skull crushed in, apparently because the kidnappers panicked and did not want to risk being caught.

In São Paulo, the kidnapping problem is somewhat less pressing, averaging about 20 per year in the 80's. Nowadays it is down to about 10. Of those, six have been solved by the Polícia Militar and the ROTA units, through preventive enforcement which hinders the setting-up of gangs like the ones that monopolize those activities in Rio, where until October, the number of kidnappings had risen to 30.

Although being kidnapped is — in and of its own — a terrible situation to be in, some people have been unfortunate enough to have been kidnapped twice, and in one case, three times. A case at hand is Manuel Alves Lavouras, a 63 year old Portuguese national and businessman.

Alves Lavouras has a net worth of over 400 million dollars and owns a transportation company. The first time he was abducted, he was able to convince his captors that he was very ill — he suffers from a cardiac condition — and they let him go. The second time, earlier last year, he paid $300,000 in ransom.

Just a few weeks ago, after a third abduction, he was let loose by his captors, but almost died. His physical condition was so deplorable that his sons rented a Medevac jet aircraft to fly him to a cardiac center in São Paulo. He barely made it.

But even people who are not as wealthy as Alves have been pulled in. Such was the case of Edevair de Souza Faria. The name would not have meant anything excepting for the fact that he happens to be the father of Brazil's soccer idol Romário. The same thing happened in 1991 to another soccer great, Bebeto. While training, he was approached by a group of five men who told him that his brother had suffered a traffic accident.

Bebeto asked to go to a phone, but ran towards the stadium security guards, and escaped the attempt. Xuxa, the singer and TV presenter, is another one who live in fear of being kidnapped since there was a botched attempt to do just this a few years ago.

As bad as things might appear, the worst years for kidnappings were 1990 (91); 1991 (93); 1992 (135); 1993 (136) and 1994 (141). It seems that the number increased as hyper-inflation set in. Many believe that as soon as Rio's favelas were occupied by the military, the crime spree went into the streets of Rio proper.

FOLK HERO — Leonardo Pareja is barely 21 years old. He is also a legend and folk hero to many in Brazil, particularly after his last escapade. What did he do to deserve it? Later last year, Pareja, who was born into a wealthy family, went into a crime spree lasting 39 days, in which he robbed, carjacked, extorted and kidnapped. In the end, he says, he turned himself in just because he got bored of taking the police forces of several states for a the fullest meaning of the word.

Pareja developed a Robin Hood type image, basically taking from the rich, and giving money to the poor. Or so he thinks. His latest run in with the law, which started when he was 16 years old, began with a botched gas station robbery in Salvador (Bahia), which turned into a kidnapping. Taken hostage in the process was 13 year old Fernanda Viana. Bright and extremely vain, Pareja is not your run-of-the-mill kidnapper. He has studied English, Spanish and is a computer expert.

Leonardo turned himself in, only after being guaranteed that the press and a judge were present to assure he would not be executed "in an exchange of gunfire" with the police. His wishes were granted.

When this happened he had already run through 10 cities in three states, had held two hostages and wounded a police officer and a civilian inside a church. He escaped every attempt to corner and arrest him, and chose his time and place of surrender.

for them

At least for some people the wave of kidnappings has been a blessing and this type of crime has had a positive effect on some sectors of Rio's economy. Security in general, for example, and security related to equipment has experimented a phenomenal growth. Bodyguards, weapons sales, self-defense classes, all are part of the security-oriented mental pattern that many of the wealthy people are now cultivating.

According to Carlos Cure, president of Rio's Security Transportation Industries, the total for security related services in 1995 was superior to $1.8 billion. Many of the services that are provided to this sector of the economy are carried out by retired or pensioned police officers, as well as many who moonlight on a second job.

There are more than 110 legally established security firms in Rio, plus another 400 or so informal ones which do not comply with establish guidelines or have a permit to operate. Other related areas that have mushroomed have been the insurance against kidnappings, bullet-proofing of vehicles, and personal defense classes. A self-defense technique called "Krav-Maga" which has been used extensively by the Israeli armed forces since the early 60s, is being taught to Rio's elite by an expert called Kobi.

Says Mr. Kobi: "Most of my students are executives, attorneys or doctors. Most of them only go from home to work and back; however, even then they wish to know how to react in any sort of situation." Some of the kidnapping victims are held for months-on-end until their relatives or companies can raise the money for their release. The list grows: David Koogan in June, José Zeno in July, Nelson Perez in August, Maria Albergonez in September, eight in October, including the three on the 25th, and so on.

Portrait of a kidnapper

According to the just-released annual report Direitos Humanos no Brasil (Human Rights in Brazil) prepared by University of São Paulo (USP) Center of Studies of Violence, most kidnappers are white and College trained. From the 144 kidnappers caught by police between 1987 to 1992 only three were black. There were 87 white and 27 were oriental.

And not only men are responsible for the abductions. Almost 14% of these kidnappers were women. The study also showed that 84 abductors were born in the South or the Southeast of the Country, being 12 from the Mid-West and 20 from the Northeast.

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