Thursday, September 20, 2012

Brasil: Fun, Friendly, and Dangerous

What Brasil has to offer
I arrived in Brasil a little more than a year ago, and the first thing I noticed is how everyone lives behind a 10-foot high wall or fence. Most of these walls also have electric fences or barbed wire on top, with cameras attached to the outer walls of the houses and bars fixed around the windows. "This place looks like a prison," I thought to myself. "But why?"

Everyone told me how dangerous it was living here. I'm currently in Curitiba, one of the more important cities in the south, which is also rumored to be as dangerous as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo on a per-capita basis. "It wasn't like this twenty years ago," I was told, but then I listened to how multiple people had had multiple cars stolen, houses broken into, or were robbed on the street at gunpoint or by and night...on busy streets and quiet roads. It happens every day to many people all over the country.

The view of the crime scene through my kitchen window
I didn't believe them. Of course I did, but all I saw in the coming months were people going about their business in a normal way. No crime whatsoever. Is there an atmosphere of selfishness and an eye-for-an-eye here? Yes, this place bleeds insecurity, but I had just spent six months living in Chile before Brasil and remembered how everyone was afraid there, too, in spite of the idea that Chile is supposedly one of the safest countries in the world. "Is it possible that Brasilians are just paranoid?" I thought. For a long time, I believed just that.

A typical way of protecting your house in Brasil
The proof for me was that I never saw the violence. At one point my girlfriend's father had his car stolen from his house. He has an electric fence and the thieves managed to get into the house and steal the car anyway, but that was at night and no one saw it happen. We wondered how they got in and saw that it wasn't that difficult in some places to get around the fence. "Thieves here are lazy," I was told. "If they see that it's easy, they'll steal from you. If not, then they'll find a place that's not so difficult. It's all about opportunity." Has anything been changed with the fence? Not that I've seen. What's the point? More security? Actually, it's probably needed.

So this explained to some degree the electric fences, and barbed wire, and alarms, and cameras, and tall walls, and private security guards working overnight at the doctor's house next door. This explained the paranoia; it wasn't so much paranoia as it was smart: protect and you will be protected. Of course, this is only a patch. Protect and you shall be protected, but what about the culture? What about community policing? What about what the politicians think or are willing to do? Protect and you shall be protected, and corrupt and you shall be corrupted, too. It's a sickening disease. And while Brasilians will tell you they care, the truth of the matter is that they don't. They complain in private, and they do nothing practical to stop it. Is it just the thieves who are lazy? Laziness breeds laziness, too.

Can't afford the electric bill? Go with barbed wire
Naturally, I started paying more attention and being aware. I hated this part about me. Coming from the U.S. where supposedly we live in a country of fear, I was practicing it first-hand now. I walk a lot at night. I teach English and many of my students can only take classes after work. Walking the empty, dark streets at night is  necessary, but I never expected what happened to me last Friday night.

Normally on Fridays I have class, and those students give me a ride to my girlfriend's house after class. But this week they were travelling, so I was in my house painting (I'm also an artist, too). It was about 9:30 when my girlfriend came on Skype and asked me when I was coming over. "I'm a bit tired, can you pick me up?" I asked. She picked me up forty-five minutes later in her father's Chevy Montana pick-up, which she was borrowing for the day, and we were on our way, or so we thought. Upon backing out of the yard, a man passed behind the truck. Nothing to be concerned about because this normal. After all, my house isn't the only one on the street. So we let him pass and we pulled out, closed the door to the yard, and drove off.

Yes, that's a playground
As we were driving off, however, my girlfriend noticed through the rear-view mirror that the man had stopped and turned around. He looked suspicious in the way he turned around and then started walking back toward the wall around my building. We stopped to watch him, and he stopped at the wall near my apartment and looked at us as if he was waiting for us to drive off. We drove around the corner to see if he was going to jump the wall (my house does not have any additional protection on top of the wall). Upon coming back on the street, we noticed he was gone, and we were too quick for him to simply walk away. "He jumped," we thought.

Now, in Brasil, you don't go back. Going back means getting shot. Going back means something bad. You never want to catch a thief because you never know what he'll do. You never, never, never go back. But there were two girls in one of the small apartments inside the building. They were alone. We couldn't just drive away. Call the cops? They never would have come. They only come if someone is already hurt (more proof on that later). It was up to us to be sure that everything was OK. "What if the guy got inside and got to the girls?" we thought. So we went back.

I clicked the clicker to open the gate and we drove in. We looked. Phew, nothing. He went somewhere else. There was one other place in the yard he could have hidden, behind a wooden board, so we got out of the car to check. Within a second after that two guys, one with a gun, came running in the yard behind us. The guy with the gun went to my girlfriend presumably because she had the key. I got out of the car with my hands up and walked off to the side. She did the same, except to the front of the car. The guy without the gun got in the car and the guy with the gun suddenly couldn't see me. Why? Because there was a tree between the front of the car where he was and the side yard, where I was standing. Shouting in Portuguese, which I didn't understand due to the slang and speed of his language, he said I was getting away. My girlfriend convinced him that I'd respond to English. I did when she told me to "Come here." Funny, after she said that, he said "Come here" as well.

More electric fences
The whole thing lasted about ten minutes. The girls, who live upstairs, saw the whole thing and were calling the police while it happened. Did they show up? Of course not. So we went to the station to file an official complaint. While there we met a woman who was reporting a home invasion. The thieves stole everything electrical from her house, also at gunpoint. Another guy had his truck with two motorcycles in the back stolen the same way. There were 150 inmates trying to cut the bars to the cell inside. Why? Because the cell only holds 40 people. How many police were there to protect the station? Three. The police were never going to show up. And we knew we'd never see the car again.
Broken glass, the cheapest option

I lost my backpack, some clothes, an expensive pair of prescription sunglasses, and a fading MP3 player. Nothing I can't live without. My girlfriend lost nothing. Her father lost the truck, but it was insured, so no problems there. It was a business vehicle anyway. We gained scars, images, and memories, of course. I knew I didn't want to live here anymore. When she finishes her PhD, we're going to make a decision. To where? I don't know, but not here. If this is normal, then I don't want normal.

My point? Look, Brasil has some wonderful people. The people are friendly, the beaches are great, the food is fantastic, and the culture is world-class. But it's not a country fit for the Olympics or the World Cup. It's a country where people are more concerned about their cars, their houses, their smartphones, and themselves...and no one else. They've failed as a country to come together be something great. I truly believe that Brasil has all the ingredients to be one of the world's greatest countries, both now and historically. The people are smart, entrepreneurial, great negotiators, even greater communicators, and wonderfully hospitable. They have amazing natural resources and the potential and willingness to be something greater than they are. But they never will be. They never will be because they do nothing about the corruptibility of their society, the politicians, and the police. They do nothing about the safety of the community; they only protect themselves. It's a country of separation, not togetherness. Is my country (U.S.A.) perfect? Of course not. Everyone all over the world knows our problems. And even though Americans often refer to themselves as Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Irish-Americans, etc. (I'm Scottish-American), when it comes to a moment of crisis, we're all Americans, and we all work together. Is that a perfect solution? Of course not. Of course we go too far sometimes, and of course many people all over the world hate how we respond, but the difference is that we do something. The great tragedy in Brasil isn't that they don't do anything, it's that they never will.

Where we think the bastards were hiding
I love my girlfriend and I really like my friends here. I'm enjoying learning Portuguese and Brasil has been a great place for me to develop as a person. I would love to live someday in Florianopolis, that southern island with all those so many great beaches, seafood restaurants, and relaxed atmosphere, but I don't want this, not just for myself, but for my friends here, too. Many of my students the past year have told me how all they want to do is leave Brasil. Most want to go to the U.S. or Canada, the latter of which currently has friendly incentives to encourage Brasilians to emigrate there. Some are thinking about Europe in spite of the financial crises there. Only my girlfriend wants to stay to make Brasil a better place (as a university professor, she's positioned well to do just that, too). I admire her for that, but even this incident has shaken her. Will we be better? Of course, but we'll never forget.

The beauty of Brasil
My girlfriend, god bless her, started a petition to bring community policing back to Curitiba. So far? Forty-two people (as of Sept 20, 2012), and she knows a lot of people. So what will happen if she gets to the 100 people she's asked for? I have no idea. If I had to guess, it'll get ignored. The politicians here seemingly only care about power, money, and, well, more power and money. Public safety is certainly not on their list of priorities. Why would it be? They're safe. Their families are safe, and the people who vote for them are able to afford more and better patches...cameras, electric fences, barbed wire. Who wants to live like this? I don't know, but they do, because they do nothing about it (my girlfriend's petition excepted, of course).

And what's next? The landlord is thinking of putting a camera on the house now. Will I feel safer with this patch? Yes. But, will I feel safer? Absolutely not.

(I recognize that this article is anecdotal. Quotes are not direct quotes, but they're definitely close enough)

Edit: To be clear, I am saying that what happened to me and my girlfriend is fairly normal. While you may not get carjacked, crime (robbery and theft) is a big enough problem that it affects everyone...and in some places especially tourists.

1 comment:

  1. I love the pictures except the unpleasant story you said. Well, every places has its own reputation but it won't stop me from traveling with my anti jet lag buddy, jetLAGFX


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