Mugged in Brazil

     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.

    by: Guy

    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

    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 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

    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

    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

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