Monday, May 23, 2011

Rio Police Work Not Always Guns and Glory

Rio’s various police forces have been in the news a lot lately, as they take over one favela after another to clear the way for the sports tourists that will come with the World Cup and the Olympics. Saturday, for example, the elite BOPE (Battalion of Special Police Operations) conducted another in a series of operations in the Mangueiras favela in the city’s North Zone, with only two people injured this time. (And yes, that badass logo that looks like something from the M.A.S.K. cartoon series is official.)

These guys are famous for daring, military-style raids on heavily armed drug traffickers. But my one experience with Rio police involved warfare of a much more psychological nature.

On a Sunday night about a month into my stay, I dropped into a police station to report that I had been robbed of my wallet. My girlfriend and I had only been dating for a week or so, but she was nice enough to come along to act as translator on what turned out not to be our most romantic date. However, we were sent to the tourist police station in Leblon, where the officers speak English.

The cop who handed me my paperwork introduced himself as a detective, but he looked like he should have been playing piano in some dive bar downtown. His uniform consisted of fitted jeans, Italian leather shoes and a button-down shirt with an outsized collar and the top several buttons left open to expose chest hair and a couple of gold necklaces. In fact, with his unshaven jaw and his hair styled to a three-inch altitude, he bore a strong resemblance to a younger Tom Waits.

I filled out my personal information and a brief account of events. The incident had occurred the previous Friday night, just after I left a club in Lapa with a group of friends from the school where we all took Portuguese classes. While the rest wandered across the street to the food and drink stands, I stopped to wait for a friend of ours to use one of the port-a-johns that line the sidewalk in the vicinity of the Lapa street party, which takes place every weekend night of the year and is such a spectacular sight that it merits a post of its own. 

As I was in full sight of about a million potential witnesses, it didn’t occur to me that I might be in danger, even when an arm put me in a headlock from behind. My first assumption was that it was one of my friends. (Yes, that’s the kind of friends I’m accustomed to.) But the arm tightened so I couldn’t call out, and suddenly I was horizontal, with two more guys holding my feet and a fourth one patting me down. At this point it became pretty clear what was happening, and I started struggling, but a second later I was on the sidewalk, and by the time I got to my feet, my assailants had vanished into the crowd with my wallet. The whole affair took less than five seconds and was executed as gently as it was professionally.

Even in those early days, I knew not to go out with my debit card and both credit cards in my wallet and then pick up $R 300 on my way to town. But I had just changed my location and had forgotten that I’d put all my cards in the wallet to keep them together during the move. So I faced some inconveniences over the next month or two.

As I noted in the last post, major changes have been made in the Lapa scene since my incident, making it much safer.

At the police station, I finished detailing the contents of my wallet and handed back the sheet of paper, thinking I was done there. This was like thinking a Brazilian party is over after the first band wraps up. That baby's going until the sun is bright. The detective told me to wait and passed the form to his only colleague at the station, who was also in full uniform, down to the prominently displayed gold necklaces and chest hair. This guy, who looked like he might have aged out of the Jersey Shore cast, set about entering my information into a computer. But his heart wasn’t really in it. After every 60 seconds or so of work, he seemed to need to rest his English skills by joking around for five or 10 minutes with the detective, who, for his part, appeared to have no case load whatsoever. When the humor reached a certain pitch, the data entry officer would forget the computer altogether, leaning back with his hands behind his head, laughing and chattering with abandon.

At this time, I understood Portuguese as spoken by the natives about as well as I understood Urdu, so I could only imagine that they were discussing the foibles and existential ironies of tourist-related crime. “What the hell are they talking about?” I kept asking Renata. But she was never big on the translator role and would only inform me that they were “just saying bullsh*ts.” Things went on in this way, right in front of us, for almost an hour, with me looking on angrily and deliberately, but the officers ignored us so expertly that they never noticed my baleful looks.

Suddenly, events took a dramatic turn. Deputy Data Entry looked into another room, leapt from his chair with a shout, and was out of sight at once. The detective followed, both of them talking excitedly.

“Now what?” I asked Renata. She informed me that there was apparently a mouse loose in the station, and Rio’s finest were hot on its tail. They couldn’t quite capture the furry fugitive, although I don’t doubt that there were some harrowing close calls. Each time they desisted, the daring perpetrator would reappear a few minutes later, prompting another hot pursuit.

At length, I decided I’d had enough and walked up to the counter that separated us, asking, “Uh, is there anything else I need to do here?” The detective told me to keep waiting, that it would just be a few more minutes, that these things take time. The effect of my impatient questioning was that all humor efforts were redoubled.

When the detective finally handed me a printout, after almost two hours of police work, I signed it without reading it, regretting my decision to ever come to the station. If I’d had doubts about the crime being solved, they were now confirmed. And reporters have to ask why only 4,000 of Brazil’s annual 50,000 murders are solved?

One day, I’ll write about some of my more positive experiences in Rio. The thing is, these lack a certain narrative and entertainment value that tribulation and misadventure lend themselves to more easily. (To wit: “We spent the day lying in the sun on a beautiful beach. It was packed with beautiful, quasi-naked people, and I was chastised for looking at them. The end.”) 

Rio’s Public Enemy No. 1 slips through the hands of authorities yet again.


  1. Thanks for the reminder about leaving a card somewhere safe! Sounds like you had a nightmare!

  2. Yeah, the police station was only the beginning, believe me.

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