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.
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 paleand 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
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
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
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 meor 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
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
nothingnowhere 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,"
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 bagmost
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 moneya few hundred reaiswas gone, but my credit card
was still there, as was my identification and my plane ticket from Foz to
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
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 amenitiesbut 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 securitya 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
as Brazilians readwere 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 email@example.com.
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