Letter to the Editor, by Damian O’Donnell
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Before I begin, I feel it’s important to emphasis that I love Rio, a city surrounded by mountain cliffs to climb, forests trails to trek and long sea lined beaches to bask at. I love the Cariocas, their openness, their charisma and character, and the outdoor airy life they lead. I feel safer there on a busy Saturday night in Zona Sul than in my home city Dublin.
If you put 10,000 Irishmen at Carnival blocos boozing all day, a quarter may mysteriously morph into a Conor McGregor mimic and “start” on you in a drink fueled rage of random violence. Sure this happens in Rio too but not at the same scale as with the fighting Irish. Violent crime in Ireland is needless; in Rio it is, more often than not, economic (from a gringo’s stance at least).
I’ve been to Rio six times and each time I’ve experienced an attempt to get the wool pulled over my eyes as a supposedly naive novice. It could be the ladron taxi driver that whisks you on an unsolicited whirlwind late night tour of Rio’s sights whilst you doze in a back seat after an evening and early morning of dancing forro (badly).
Or perhaps it’s the the suited and booted cashier at the tuxedo rental shop near the Copacabana Palace that has a special price for an Irishman with a farmers tan (my Brazilian friend had rented the same suit earlier that day but not at the same fee).
These are small hustles though. I’ve also experienced the petty crime that preys on the recently landed. My first visit in 2007 led me to Lapa where I sampled, unknowingly, “good night Cinderalla”, a strong sedative that left me semi-conscious under the tram arches slouched and slanty-eyed, observing, with powerless limbs, as a young black kid pulled the silver chain from my neck and a local lad in a suit and tie (though clearly not a businessman) rifled through my already emptied pockets.
The police were twenty yards away and must have seen but took no action. One week into my Brazil trip all my cards, money, and my phone had gone and I was traveling alone. I never made that mistake again and never took more than one card out in future visits.
Another year, my pal and I, late at night, winded down from Mud Bug Bar in Copa for a seaside kiosk nightcap. My blonde haired blue eyed friend was approached by a young and curvy girl, she backed into him, pressing her curves to fit into his. He smiled until I saw and dragged him away. We sat at the kiosk, ‘I should have got her number’ he mused, but there was no need, she had his phone already, unbeknownst to him.
So that brings me to 2017. I’m a seasoned visitor now, almost local, my fiancée is a Carioca and I can get by in pigeon Portuguese. Another glorious day for a canter down the beach whilst my girl stayed behind sprawled on her canga by the chairs we had rented and about a yard from my bag buckled to the steel rim of the cadera filled with Ray Bans, iPhone, cash and keys. “He distracted me she said, the beach seller, he was staring at me so I stared back”.
In that magician like moment, the crime was complete. She didn’t hear the other partner deftly release the bags clasp, and the six or seven guys soaking up the sun around us saw nothing, alakazam, poof, the deed was done and my cash and the culprits has disappeared into thin air!
We returned home to go through the well rehearsed routine of cancelling cards but they had got one away already, €77 at a restaurant. Then two further attempts for €926.60 and €1544.30 were tried at a nearby beach stall named Barraca Do Nildo on Posto 9 at the bottom of Rua Maria Quiteria. Luckily, the fraud prevention team at my bank spotted these and e-mailed me.
They also sent a request for approval of the transactions to my phone, my stolen phone unfortunately, but I had blocked the cards in time. Another e-mail, this time a notification that my iPhone ‘Find my phone’ had been disabled.
These guys were quick, they knew what to do, and a local barraca was seemingly in on the scam too. “They are a gang, I thought, but we’ll see who’s laughing when I get the police involved and show them the evidence from my banks security team. Revenge!”
Unfortunately, things are never straight forward in Rio. We called down to the tourist police station in Leblon only to find it closed. “The police are on strike” a solitary guardian at the gate informed me. “The Government hasn’t paid us”.
This was on the back of a police strike in Espirito Santo, the state neighboring Rio to the north, where the families of police officers blocked security forces from patrolling, leading to widespread violence and over one hundred deaths. I left the station empty handed and with no hope of recourse.
I decided the next day to approach the barraca myself to seek my own justice, vigilante style, or at least sheepishly ask in polite Western European style if they happened to notice any shifty sorts attempting to pay them almost €2500 at their chair rental spot.
As I neared, I noticed that this stall was populated by an even mix of large intimidating men and boisterous youngsters. Diane Warwick style, I walked on by, “this crime” I regretfully pondered, “is going to go unpunished”. And it has.