By Mark Taylor

The fact that an attempted carjacking in Brazil hit international headlines a week or so ago would ordinarily be very unusual. In this case though the carjackers picked four members of the Toyota F1 team, here in São Paulo for the Grand Prix at Interlagos. The twenty or so carjackers had actually attempted to steal several cars, which the Toyota team’s car was one of. At one point in the attempted theft a gun was held to the head of Fernanda Villas-Boas, a Toyota spokesperson, although despite this they managed to drive away and escape, even with shots fired at the car. Fernanda has said that the thieves could not have known who or what was in the car due to blacked out windows.

Ordinarily I’m wary of sensationalising events that happen here in Brazil, as the country already has an arguably overrated reputation with reference to crime. For example a quote from one recent article regarding the above topic was: the chance for a run-in with criminals is good”. This conjures up the image that the average Paulista, a citizen of São Paulo city, is running the gauntlet on a daily basis fighting off criminals. Whereas the reality is quite different. One reason this media image frustrates me is because in almost three years in Brazil I have never been attacked or mugged once, nor have I even felt threatened. I am wary though, and apply a modicum of common sense when I’m out and about wherever it is (there’s also some common sense advice here at on the topic). My wife, a Brazilian citizen who has lived in São Paulo over thirty years, has been the victim of a successful carjacking in the past though, as well as an attempted theft. I also remember shootings in a neighbourhood I used to live in, therefore I’m equally wary that it can happen. My Portuguese teacher even told me a memorable tale of when her children’s expensive trainers/sneakers were stolen while they were on the bus. So clearly there’s a balance to be struck between being oblivious and over cautious.

So with this balance in mind I still feel it’s worth noting some recent anecdotes from a friend here, that suggest particularly single women travelling alone in a car need to take extra care. In a very recent episode thieves attempted to steal my friend’s wife’s handbag. This wasn’t a case of “oblivious gringo” either, as his wife is Brazilian. In thefts from cars, thieves often approach the car when stopped at traffic lights then hit the car window with the point of a large nail they hold in their hand. The idea with the nail is to shatter the window, so the thief can then take whatever is in the car. As evident from the incident with the Toyota team, they may not be dissuaded by blacked out windows. Which was also the case with my friend’s wife. Whether the thieves spot what they want through the windscreen is hard to say. In this particular case the car was stopped beside a slum. Thankfully the thief was thwarted as the hole in the window was too small, and the bag too big. It was particularly poor timing on the thief’s part as well as there were two police closeby who grabbed him. Bemusingly though around twenty young men appeared out of the slum and descended on the police, who were grappling with the thief. Then a rather frightening altercation took place between the men and the police, and the police were firing shots in the air to keep them back. My friend’s sister-in-law has also been involved in four separate attempted thefts, again while in the car, during the last six months.

So what can you do to try and reduce the risk? Again it’s mostly a case of common sense. Don’t have things on show, whether it be some type of bag, shopping, a mobile phone, or similar. At worst tuck bags behind your seat, at best put them in the boot/trunk. Make sure mobile phones and other items are placed in the bag or glove box. Shopping and other items are again best secured in the boot/trunk. Also question what you need to take with you. If you don’t need all your credit cards, cash and other expensive items then leave them at home. This will reduce the impact if you are unfortunate enough to be involved in a theft. When in the car make sure that all doors are locked, and if threatened don’t play the hero, just give up what the thief asks for.

Have you experienced crime in Brazil, whether it be a carjacking, theft, or something else? Do you have some good advice on reducing the risk? If so, send me an email.

Reader’s Comments:

Five years of living in Brazil have taught me that it is possible to be a victim of crime even in the least likely places.

My wife has a medical clinic in Feira de Santana, Bahia. At one time I also had an office at the back of the clinic. (She’s a doctor, I’m a writer). A few years ago three armed men walked into the clinic and took my wife, about 15 of her patients and me hostage for two hours. They demanded our bank cards and passwords, and kept us huddled in a small room on the floor while they visited nearby bank machines to withdraw cash. They then stole a patient’s car to make their escape – but not before relieving everyone of their cellular phones, watches, and other valuables. The hostages included small children, a pregnant woman and a patient over the age of 80. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. However, many of my wife’s patients were traumatized. I can’t say I enjoyed the experience, either.

We called the police, who showed up 15 minutes later for a minute or two, and were never heard from again. As usual, the police showed little interest in taking action or solving the crime.

Apparently not even doctors’ offices are safe. And our experience was not unusual. Since that time virtually all the clinics in the area surrounding my wife’s practice have been robbed. I now live in Salvador, where doctors’ offices and hospitals are often assaulted. In a recent case, a man was shot and killed at the entrance of a large private hospital in Salvador.

Interestingly, in 45 years of living in Canada none of my friends or family had been robbed or assaulted at gunpoint. Here in Brazil, almost every member of my wife’s family has been robbed at gunpoint, including her teenage sons. And virtually everybody I know here has experienced the same, some many times.

Personally, I don’t think Brazil’s reputation for crime is the least bit overrated. Crime, including murder, is out of control in this country. Anyone who disagrees should speak to friends or acquaintances who live in favelas or other low-income areas. While it may be easier for the middle class to claim overreaction to crime, the large percentage of the Brazilian population who live in poverty are well aware that crime and violence are a part of everyday life. They are the real victims.

— Anonymous

I am English, lived in São Paulo, in the Santo Amaro area with my family, husband and 2 kids, for 6 1/2 years – 1997-2003, and not once did anything ever happen to us. Yes the traffic was bad, and it did always cross your mind that something could occur, particularly as the kids went to St. Pauls. Athough that school did not have the same number of potential kidnappings as Graded at the time.

I just wanted to make a comparison here though. We travelled twice to Cuba whilst living in Brazil, and on the second occasion I was mugged in Havana Vieja – at the same time my husband was having a meeting with the Minister of Tourism who was telling him and his colleagues how wonderful Cuba was, how safe and so on. This particular mugger was trying to get the gold necklace from around my neck. He did not succeed! The same necklace I wore for the whole time in supposedly a crime ridden city.

Makes you think doesn’t it?!!

— Gil

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