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PBS, USA, 2005

Ransom City
Essay: Kidnappings: Little Hope for São Paulo

By Luis Bitencourt, 2005

Kidnapper in a favela in São Paulo

photo credit: Benito Montorio/BBC

São Paulo, Brazil — the third largest city in the world — was recently named Latin America’s “best business city” by the LATIN BUSINESS CHRONICLE. And so agree São Paulo’s criminals specialized in kidnapping for profit. Indeed, extortion through kidnappings (or “economic kidnappings”) has become a constant presence in the daily routine of paulistas, as the citizens of São Paulo are called. In fact, statistics on kidnappings show Brazil behind only Colombia and Mexico in terms of the number of reported kidnappings. And considering that the security situation in Colombia has improved remarkably over the last few years, it’s likely that Brazil will soon occupy second place. According to official 2005 reports, 133 kidnapping cases were recorded in the State of São Paulo, with over half of these occurring in the capital. Thus far, 2006 shows no improvement. Some may argue that these numbers pale in relation to the 3,510 violent homicides recorded during this same period in the state. However, as the residents of São Paulo know, kidnappings pose a particular menace that deeply affects the psyche and creates a sense of insecurity comparable only to terrorist threats.

Kidnappers often observe the routine of their intended victims and plan carefully for the nabbing. The majority of cases occur when a wealthy victim is traveling to or from the office (or the moment they arrive home). The criminals will use several cars — normally stolen ones that are abandoned shortly after the abduction to avoid identification (9,166 cars have been stolen in São Paulo in the past three months). At a convenient point, they’ll block the victim’s car and rapidly force him or her into one of their cars, or they’ll enter the hostage’s own car. Once they have the victim safely contained in a remote location, they will contact the family to begin negotiations.

But some newer forms of abductions have become common in São Paulo, as the public becomes more alert and takes preventative measures. “Express kidnappings” have become popular. This is when victims are held and forced to withdraw money from ATMs until their bank accounts are drained. This has prompted São Paulo banks to limit the withdrawals per ATM after 10:00pm, as well as to restrict the dollar amount on daily withdrawals per card. Most recently, criminals have begun to carry out “virtual kidnappings,” which is a form of pseudo-abduction. Kidnappers will contact a family and claim that they have a relative as a hostage. They pressure the family to pay a ransom, even though the kidnapping has never truly happened. The fact that kidnappers have been successful in acquiring money for phony abductions gives measure to the psychological stronghold that kidnappers have on São Paulo.

So common are kidnappings that the Brazilian press today pays attention to the issue only when the victim is of prominent status. Recent “press-worthy” victims included Abilio Diniz, a wealthy CEO of a supermarket chain; Washington Olivetto, a well-known marketing expert; and the daughter of Silvio Santos, the owner of a TV network. All were targeted under the assumption that they would be relatively “soft” targets (i.e. unaware and unguarded) and would produce a valuable ransom.

Last year’s rash of kidnappings of the mothers of several professional soccer players followed the same rationale. Marina da Silva Souza, the mother of the soccer star Robinho, was kidnapped and freed after 41 days, reportedly after a ransom of about $83,000 was paid. Three separate cases with similar circumstances followed, but the police were able to find the kidnappers’ hideouts and free the women. Another victim was the mother of the soccer player Marinho, who was released after a reported $20,000 ransom was paid.

The causes of crime

Although kidnappings occur in other major cities around the world, it is important to distinguish between kidnappings for political or ideological interests (such as those in Iraq) from the ones for purely economic interests. What makes kidnapping proliferate in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, or Mexico City is a combination of inequality, weak state institutions, and a sense of impunity. All of these elements work together to make the “business return” attractive when balanced against the risks. Moreover, it is clear that crime grows along perceived opportunities and draws quickly on successful techniques.

A recent study by the IPEA (Applied Economic Research Institute) demonstrated that Brazil is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Their findings showed that in the past two decades murder rates in Brazil have more than tripled, from 13,877 homicides in 1980 to 49,587 in 2002. There is no simple explanation for these escalating crime rates. Instead, it is a combination of several causes in a “perfect storm” of mutual causation. Poverty — but mostly the huge gap existing between the rich and the poor, which is amongst the worst in the world — creates a fertile environment where drug dealers operate with ease and criminals can establish substantial areas of influence.

Brazil’s seemingly intractable inequality has been a case study for economists and social scientists for decades. According to the World Bank, Brazil’s inequality pattern is only better than Sierra Leone’s and Central Africa Republic’s. Brazil’s richest 20 percent earns 62 percent of the nation’s income, while Brazil’s lowest 20 percent earns just 2.6 percent of the income. And Brazil’s inequality is even more relevant because of the size of Brazilian population (sixth in the world) and because Brazil’s GDP ranks amongst the ten biggest GDPs in the world.

The causes for this incredible income gap are varied. Historically Brazilian elites were able to influence the government policy for their advantage. The model of Brazil’s insertion into the world economy by exporting products of low value, produced at low wages because of the labor surplus, worked to widen the gap. Finally, decades of hyper-inflation — from the 1970s to early 1990s — affected mostly the poor who had no financial artifices to protect their assets.

Under these circumstances, during the last half of the 20th century, millions of Brazilians moved from the poorest Northeastern region to urban centers in the South looking for jobs and better living conditions. The resulting population boom in the Southern urban centers contributed to the proliferation of favelas (slums). An erratic urbanization pattern developed in many of the major cities in the South, particularly in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Belo Horizonte, where eventually rich mansions share the same neighborhood with miserable housing.

Kidnapping is a booming business

From the perspective of the perpetrator, the act of kidnapping is a relatively easy and safe way to make a bundle of money quick (compared to robbing banks, for example). The tricky part lies in the kidnapper’s need to work with a crew that has the skills to effectively hold the victim in captivity and oversee the negotiation that follows. The team needs to be capable of careful planning and considerable organization. They also need access to a number of non-identifiable cars, as well as a number of safe houses to hide the hostages. Sometimes several hideouts are used in order to evade the police. These unique requirements help explain why kidnappings are usually conducted by specialized gangs.

São Paulo also offers a number of tempting soft targets in the figure of multinationals’ executives, prosperous entrepreneurs, and other VIPs and their families. Feeling unsafe, many have adopted preventive measures, such as hiring bodyguards for personal security, acquiring armored vehicles, bullet-proofing their cars, and buying special insurance policies. Executives frequently use helicopters, not only to escape from São Paulo’s chaotic traffic, but also for security reasons. São Paulo has currently registered the second largest helicopter fleet in the world — it jumped quickly from less than 300 helicopters in 2002 to about 500 in 2005. Because children are especially attractive targets for kidnappers — since they offer little resistance and are emotionally appealing as hostages — some wealthy families have concluded that the best protection they can buy for their children is to send them to live abroad, mostly in Miami.

São Paulo’s police protection

Due to the growing occurrence of kidnappings and increased terror among the population, the police of São Paulo have stepped up efforts to address the situation. In 2001, recognizing the specificity of kidnapping as a crime, the government of the state created, within the civilian police force, a special Anti-Kidnapping Division (DAS). This division has a specific intelligence unit, SWAT-type training and abilities, and expertise in negotiation. Other efforts to curb crime include the establishment of a toll-free police hotline, Disque-Denuncia, for tips on cases and to report criminals. The State has also developed a campaign to promote safety, which is aimed at educating the public about measures they can take to prevent becoming a victim. The recommended tactics include avoiding the identification of family members in the media, frequent changes in traffic and time patterns between office and home, use of shadowed and bullet-proofed car windows, careful scrutiny of employee references, as well as the use of trained drivers and bodyguards. The rationale here is that many kidnappers will choose a different target if they perceive that stakes are high and the potential victim is alert.

São Paulo police have also scored a few moderate victories, including the dismantling of some criminal bands. Also, thus far, they have been able to preserve the lives of all abductees. Neither the police, nor private security firms have reported killings related to kidnappings.

Notwithstanding these few successes, the overwhelming crime culture in Brazil increasingly works to undermine the population’s confidence in the state to protect them. Brazil’s judicial system is slow and antiquated, allowing cases to pile up and creating a huge backlog. In addition, smart attorneys have exposed the system’s vulnerabilities and they frequently exploit loopholes to delay cases indefinitely. In addition, the penal system (under the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, which controls over 5,000 penal institutions) has proved ineffective. In the year 2000, 212,000 inmates were incarcerated in Brazil. Prisons are overcrowded, riots are frequent, and drug kingpins keep control over their gangs even from inside prison. Escapes — either by spectacular breakouts or simply by bribing prison guards — are not uncommon.

The role of politics

Given the inability of the state to resolve the problem of extreme crime, why has the central government not adopted a comprehensive plan to tackle the problem? Well, plans - impressive ones - have been presented, both in response to particularly dramatic crimes and during political campaigns. The central theme that emerges from these plans is that the state’s action must involve social programs and judicial reform, in addition to improving enforcement capability. Nevertheless, effectiveness has only been observed, and modestly, at the state level. For example, the state of Minas Gerais was able to map regions of crime occurrence and use this information to coordinate social and educational programs. The also strengthened the police effectiveness by retraining the force, including on human rights, and improving intelligence gathering and analysis. The government of São Paulo as well, beginning in 2001, has been revamping and reorganizing its enforcement apparatus and has been constructing new prisons.

On June 20, 2000, the Cardoso administration issued the Plano Nacional de Segurana Pœblica-PNSP (National Plan for Public Safety), a comprehensive project aimed at preventing crime, reducing impunity, and “increasing the overall safety for all citizens.” The plan was assigned a budget of approximately $750 million and included 124 strategies to fight drug trafficking and organized crime. The PNSP advocated for disarmament and gun control laws, provided for professional training and police re-equipping, ordered an end to police violence, and promised to update legislation related to public safety. Nevertheless, the PNSP was quickly buried in 2003 by the newly elected President Lula da Silva. And to this day, no specific report has been issued to assess its results.

Now, in 2006, it is again the season for magic solutions. There is a presidential race just around the corner, and the public security crisis in São Paulo has pushed the topic to the forefront of the campaign. President Lula da Silva can currently be heard lecturing on seriousness of the crime situation in São Paulo and how his administration will resolve it. Of course, he fails to mention why former plans and promises were abandoned four years ago. Other candidates will also address the problem with more promises. They will all acknowledge that this is a national problem that goes well beyond the State of Paulo, a problem that should have a national and comprehensive treatment. But the population has seen this movie before.

Under these circumstances, kidnappers may relax: it will be business as usual. And there will be little hope for São Paulo.

Luis Bitencourt is the former director of the Brazil Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is currently serving as Professor of National Security Affairs at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies.

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