Friday, 8 October 2010

Playing it Safe in Brazil

If you live in Brazil, you’ve had this conversation:  It starts with someone recounting something that happened to them, a friend, or a friend’s friend that weekend.  Something like a gold necklace yanked off by a passing cyclist, a wallet swiped by a beach vendor. Then it descends into frenzied, horror-story one-upmanship that leaves new arrivals wondering if they’ve made the right decision.

I am as guilty of this as anybody: My current portfolio of pant-wetting anecdotes includes one about a friend caught in her car on a Rio highway during a gang shoot-out.  Gangsters ran between cars, smashing windscreens and firing into the air while she hid behind the seat reading storybooks to her toddler.  There’s also the one about my friend who stopped his car to give directions in Itaim, whereupon a guy jumped in and held a gun-barrel against his forehead until he handed over his wedding ring.

The story-telling is part scaremongering, part therapy.  We do it for the same reason that we look at road accidents; to confront our fear and accept the inevitable truth, that one day we may be the protagonists of our own drama.  We have to prepare ourselves for the worst and hope for the best.  But there are things besides crossing fingers we can do to avoid trouble. 

I am married to the most security-conscious person on Earth, a security expert whose career is founded on his being an inscrutable, levelheaded person who can spot a risk a mile away but would never take one; who would never make a careless mistake like leaving a front door unlocked or a passport lying about; who is programmed to trust nobody but who people trust implicitly. Yeah, so he’s so not rock and roll…but I like him.   

I interviewed him for a magazine article last month and thought I'd share the transcript with you.  His advice has kept me safe up until now, maybe it can help you too.

Babe, can I interview you about security in Brazil?
Providing you don’t mention my name.

Seriously? Can’t I even tell people what you do?

What are you scared of?
I’m a discreet person.  I value my privacy. 

How on earth did you end up with me?  I only ever dreamed of being famous….I bet you didn’t even tell me your real name!
Marrying you was probably the riskiest thing I ever did.  If I tell you the truth I will have to kill you.

Okay be serious; are we irresponsible to raise kids here?  Is it too dangerous?
No, of course not.  Danger is relative.  It’s safer here than Kabul, more dangerous than Monaco. 

Very helpful!  Could you try and be a bit more specific?

Well, I reckon that if you put every country side by side, Brazil would be a bit worse than average.  Sao Paulo is safer than Mexico City and with a different type of crime than places like Johannesburg where there are many rapes and violent crimes.

Square of chocolate?

Hand it over.

So, what are the biggest dangers here?
In Sao Paulo and Rio, we’re talking about street crime.  The problem is the perpetrators are armed and don’t have much to lose. In Rio you have drug gangs with territorial control, and police no-go areas.  But for your average expat, crimes of opportunity like mugging, car-jacking and express kidnap are the biggest threats.

Talk about kidnap
Kidnap for ransom is now very rare in Brazil. More common are express kidnaps, when they capture a random person, steal what they have on them and drive them around cash-points to max out their cards before releasing them.  There’s also virtual kidnap, when someone makes you believe, via telephone, that your relative has been kidnapped and will be harmed unless you make an immediate deposit to a bank account.  Meanwhile, said relative is fine, shopping or at the cinema. 

Does anyone really fall for that?  I get those reverse-charge calls all the time
It seems unlikely, but intelligent people can be duped.  Even the Brazilian Vice President fell for this a few months ago.

How can people avoid becoming a victim?
Be aware. Awareness costs nothing.  I see people invest R$50,000 to bullet proof their cars, but then they drive with their windows open, or with the doors unlocked.  Pointless.

When driving, you should always know where you are going and plan your route, which you never do.

I do.  Just because I once took a four-hour detour via the airport on what should have been a twenty-minute journey in Rio.  I still can’t believe how mad you were at me.

Don’t remind me.  You were an idiot.  Those roads are dangerous.  I was worried about you. 

Also, when you stop at traffic lights, you shouldn’t fiddle with your radio or talk on the phone; look around, use your mirrors, and always keep enough room between you and vehicles in front when you stop, so that you have room to evade trouble.

On the street, stay alert and keep a low profile. Do not walk around using your cell-phone or talking loudly in English.  Don’t wear expensive jewelry.

Is that why all the jewelry you’ve ever given me is made of wood or seeds or plastic – for my safety?

Diamonds cause wars…where was I?

Be sensible.  I wouldn’t sit on the terrace of a restaurant with my laptop, except perhaps in a shopping mall.  Don’t believe anywhere is completely safe, even chic neighborhoods.  Some places are less dangerous than others.  That’s it.

What about at home?

In an apartment you have an extra layer of security – the doorman.  But the main problem is that despite equipment like cameras and security gates, he is often badly paid, untrained and could easily let someone in. 

With a house on the street you have the advantage of having complete control of who comes in and out, but you need to invest in perimeter and electronic security, and ensure your maid is trustworthy and well trained.

Tell maids not to reveal or confirm anything on the phone, and only let authorized people in.  Also, know who you are hiring. Pay for background checks and check references.  It’s easy, yet people don’t do it.

What do you do if something happens?
Comply and stay calm,

Do you call the police?  Are they going to do anything?  I don’t even know the number!
Yes you call the police.  Dial 190.

Are things improving?
Sao Paulo got much better in recent years, but is worsening again.  Rio is progressing but has a long way to go.  In general, Brazil is improving slowly. 

Are you scared of anything?
You leaving me!

Very funny.
People shouldn’t be ruled by fear.  Just be aware.  It’s like avoiding sugary, fatty foods – something you can easily do which may or may not prolong your life.

Another square of chocolate?
I’ll risk it


  1. "Is that why all the jewelry you’ve ever given me is made of wood or seeds or plastic?" made my day again :)

    great reading you Tash, write more, more, more !

  2. Loved this one! Very Mr. and Mrs. Becoming. Great points too. I´ve never talked to my maid about not giving info on the phone.

    And you do have to be careful. I had the phone company come to my place once. The doorman called and I told him that I didn´t have an appointment with the phone company (they always make appointments!) and so my doorman turned him away. I then called the phone company and they confirmed that they had nothing scheduled for my apartment...

    Just got to be careful... and I guess I should stop cruising around chatting on my cell.

  3. Just discovered your a fellow English-speaking expat adjusting to life in SP, i love it! coming on 2 years here, and trying to adjust for the long haul. and the horror stories--totally on point. i think the armed car can also be more of a status symbol than protection, hence the points your husband makes about carelessness. we have to be careful, but we can't live our lives in fear either.

  4. I've been to Brazil, so I kind of know how things work there, but I'm not sure which would seem more surprising to the average American reading this; the security precautions suggested or the general assumption that you would have a maid.

  5. @Paul
    You are quite right Paul, this would probably be surprising. Stay tuned, you got me thinking...was about to write more in this reply but I think I'll write a blog post about it!

  6. My cousin and I fly in to Rio in March,(3rd year for me) We hang out on the parade route with this family who has gotten to know us, and I feel so safe they help us find a taxi at the end of the night..But not speaking the language makes me a little nervous I don't stray far from my cousin esp at night. How lucky you are to live there , I can't wait to return...

  7. Good to know...I have been to Rio a couple of times. I am heading back there in December/January. My bf warned me about the Linha Vermelha. Last January, about 2 days after Reveillon, boyfriend and I were stuck in traffic headed to Copacabana. Heard a loud firecracker we thought,later to find out it was a grenade! The police were chasing those guys on the beach. It was insane. My family is going this time, so I have been telling them about not wearing fancy jewelry, being vigilant. I purposely did not tell them about the grenade incident. Thanks for posting the safety reminders.