I thought my experience residing in a number of big cities had made me street smart enough to survive any situation. But about six months after moving to São Paulo, I had a run-in with a criminal and realized that cushy Manhattan living had not prepared me for the bare-faced reality of São Paulo daily crime.
The following is the next installment of our collaboration (Born Again Brazilian and Brazil in My Eyes) on staying safe in São Paulo.
São Paulo is an exciting place to be, but with such a vast and diverse population, you are bound to have a higher percentage of bad guys than other places. Common crimes include:
- Being robbed by a motoboy who can make a quick getaway.
- Lockdown at a restaurant where the entrance will be blocked by armed men while the other criminals collect the belonging of patrons.
- Carjacking, that could include a “flash” kidnapping during which you are forced to drain your bank account at the nearest ATM.
As mentioned in the last post, professional criminals just want to get in and out. They don’t want to kill you, or even spend too much time with you. They just want what you have and be on their way. But a new crop of criminals has surfaced, ones that are a bit more dangerous. So your best line of defense is to totally avoid being in a situation that will put you on the other side of a weapon. So, first let’s look at some rules to abide by to avoid being in an incident. At the end these key rules, we will look at how you should react if you do find yourself a victim:
Key rules for incident avoidance:
Rule #1: Avoid drawing large sums of money from an ATM or teller.
It is very possible you are being targeted when you extract cash from your bank. Whether it is someone from the street or an inside job, it happens enough to assume a position of paranoia. If you need to pay someone, do so via bank transfer, a transaction you can do from home online. If you have a household employee who claims they don’t have an account, make them open one. It is better for both parties. If you need to pay a vendor or store, and they don’t take a credit or debit card, they will most likely take a Brazilian check (more commonly than other countries these days).
Rule #1b: Be unpredictable in your habits.
I’m adding this as 1b because as we’ve mentioned, criminals have time to study. This is their full-time job. If you go to the bank every Thursday at 10 am to withdraw money from your US account, someone is going to figure that out. Sooner than you think. If you usually walk to the shops and back by a certain route, vary it once in a while. This will hold true for car driving as well (next post).
Rule #2: Avoid eating out late at night, especially on a side street or more remote location.
It is always best to stay at home or in a secured location, like a friend’s house or a club when 10 p.m. rolls around. But if you need to eat on the street at this hour, go to a place that is well populated. Not just with people, but with other businesses.
Rule #3: Avoid keeping any item of a recognizable luxury brand or sparkly gems on your person while walking the streets.
Your desire to impress shouldn’t outweigh your need to stay safe. Criminals go for brands and jewels they know they can move quickly – Rolex, Louis Vuitton, diamonds… If you just can’t go out without being expensively dressed, at least cover yourself in something so sophisticated a petty criminal wouldn’t recognize it. Yes, we know your Brazilian girlfriends don’t follow this rule. They are Brazilian. You are not.
Rule #4: If you must drive a luxury car, you’re going to want a blindado.
The best way to avoid being carjacked is to not drive a fancy car. But if you are not willing to lower your standards, at least get it bulletproofed. This service is expensive and also means extra spending on gas because it makes the vehicle heavier. Also, there are various types of blindado that range in price and protection, so ask a lot of questions, including what type of gun will the proofing protect from.
Rule #5: Don’t look lost.
There is such a thing as looking like a victim. Don’t wander around an unfamiliar neighborhood staring into your iPhone as you try and determine your location. It is a recipe to be robbed.
Rule #6: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
There were recently a string of crimes involving criminals who were well-dressed and well-spoken. If a well-dressed man knocks on your window and appears to want to ask for directions, don’t roll down the glass. Shake your head and say “desculpe.” Or a woman with a possibly expensive purse approaches your car in the parking lot, jump in quickly and lock the doors if you don’t want to wind up in your own trunk while she shops with your credit cards.
Rule #7: Don’t attract attention by speaking English or other foreign language loudly. The Brazilian currency gets weak. That means that foreigners (rich or no) begin to look better as money sources.
Rule #8: Think carefully about giving expensive electronics to children
We’ll cover this more in School Smarts, but there has been a recent spate in kids being mugged outside of schools. They are getting robbed of iPhones and iPads and other electronics. Think long and hard if your kid might be a target by having the latest technology. Make sure your kids know how to react.
Rule #9: If you think someone looks suspicious, they probably ARE suspicious.
Duck into a shop or busy place until the risk moves on. If it doesn’t, call 190 and ask them to check out the situation.
Rule #10: Beware of the “distract and rob” strategy.
As many know, our husbands are Brazilian. That does not make them immune in any way. In an attempt to be helpful when someone asked for directions, my husband was facing one way towards the person asking for help, while the accomplice stole his laptop from behind. Hold onto your stuff if you are asked for directions or seem to be getting the run-around.
And let me pull out Rule Zero. The overall rule of life in the big city. BE AWARE. Always, everywhere. A criminal may be hanging out on a street looking for potential quick hit victims. If you are “present”, looking around and really looking at people, with electronics and valuables hidden and purse tight to your body, he is going to choose someone else. The someone who is checking her iPhone, paying no attention, checking out her nails. Be less interesting than the next person; be less of a victim than the next person. That being said, no matter what you do and whose advice you follow, something bad may happen. Be prepared for it: do not fight back.
What should you do if you are on the other side of a weapon, regardless of assailant:
Realize, first of all, that your assailant may be on drugs. Even if not, the assailant really does not want a surprise. Move slowly and cooperate with his/her requests. If facing the criminal, raise your hands open-faced in front of you at waist level to show you have nothing in your hands. Do not raise hands above head as this attracts attention and the criminal does not want attention.
If you speak no or little Portuguese, say immediately “não falo portugues” (sounds like “no follow por-too-Gaze”). This will alert the criminal that you might not be following instructions because you do not understand, not because you are resisting. If they are asking for a wallet, or cell phone, point slowly to the pocket where it is and tell them you are going to get it slowly. Tell them what you are doing before doing it. Say “Te dou tudo” (“Chee dough too-doo” I am giving you everything). Try and stay calm.
This is the most important point. DO NOT RESIST GIVING UP ANYTHING. If they want your engagement ring, give it to them. If they want your Rolex, give it to them. Your wallet, your purse, your MacAir, your tablet, your car, whatever. Your life is not worth the replacement value of stuff. You have no replacement. Do not resist. This will make the criminal incredibly unhappy.
I was counseled by a military police to always carry at least R$200 (about US$100) on me, in cash, all the time. It is an amount of money that will satisfy the small time criminal that wants an easy hit. If you only have R$2 in your wallet, they might get mad. Do not make them mad.
Do not look the criminal in the eye. They do not want to be identified. If there is a tattoo on an arm or hand, or distinctive clothing, do try to remember that. The police have an impressive file of identifying tattoos for criminals in this city. Do not take a risk in trying to memorize stuff. It may be helpful in the police report but is not worth risking your life.
At a recent security presentation by the military police, the captain gave the following sobering information:
Most of the crimes committed today are to get quick money to buy drugs. Crimes are overwhelmingly committed by 15-23 year olds. This is a group that places low value on life —yours. And realize that the street value of your stuff is low, even if you bought your iPhone for $700USD or your car for $100,000. Want to see how low?
The street value of various items:
iPhone: $50 reais
Car: $500 reais
Bulletproofed car: $3000 reais
Laptop: $50 reais
This is a volume business. They need to rob many folks to get money.
Do not ever chase an assailant. They could look back. They could get upset. They still have a gun. Call 190 and ask for an English-speaking officer. Or ask for the closest “delegacia de policia” to report the crime. Only by reporting crimes can the police put officers on the street in the right areas.
Note on Technology:
Speaking of smartphones, there is a time and place for their use. Technology that can help you stay safe when you are out of your home is springing up daily. Just make sure you are aware of your environment before you become engrossed in your phone.
Taxis: There are a number of smartphone apps that can make travel by taxi safer and easier for those who do not speak Portuguese. While I prefer to use my local taxi stand when I’m near home, when you are around town, you may want to try one of the many apps: 99Taxis, Taxijá and EasyTaxi are three of the ones I have used. I have a slight preference for 99Taxis because the drivers do not have to pay to use it (nor do you). When you press a button to call a taxi electronically, when a taxi is nearby, it will accept the call and you will be provided the name, the cell phone, the license plate and make/model of the taxi, and estimated arrival time of the taxi driver. You then can leave your secure location only when that exact taxi has pulled up.
In addition, we are testing three other safety apps called Agentto (for issuing panic alerts to an established safe circle of friends and family), Cidade Legal, and Aster, which is a private security service. We’ll update this information with our findings.
Next safety post we will cover the topic of staying safe in your car. And briefly touch on public transportation safety as well.