February 5, 2007

Rio Knife Stories
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Crime stories retold with a frequency reminiscent of Trinidad and Tobago, it's amazing how many tourists in this hostel have had an unfriendly encounter with a knife.

Rio de Janeiro is not a place you tread around in without taking certain precautions, yet even with a reputation for crime as bad as this city has, I keep hearing these stories where common sense was thrown to the wind and misfortune resulted.

One British lad in my room told me how the night prior to my arrival he and a girl had just finished buying some marijuana on the street when they turned a corner and ran into trouble. He had only just figured out that he had been ripped off by the local—simply given a folded up banana leaf—when a man stepped in front of the two and displayed a knife (in a discreet manner).

The girl wasn't in a good place (mentally), but the boy got a look at the weapon held vertically against the man's chest, and realized what he was looking at—the guy had simply taken a plastic butter knife and wrapped aluminum foil around it (apparently a very common thing for the streets of Rio). The would-be attacker snatched his necklace and both parties took off in different directions. Less than a week later the same kid was sold a small bag of salt—instead of the cocaine he thought he was getting. (shaking head)

There are stories from the staff here of groups that will go to the beach, and only those that aren't Brazilian will get relieved of their belongings. Apparently the muggers don't often harass or wish to liberate their own countrymen of their valuables.

Another pair of Rio knife tales has to do with the short tunnels that connect the neighboring burros of Copacabana with Ipanema and Botafogo. Rio is sort of a mountainous place, with foothills touching the shoreline. Two tunnels that can't be any more than 150 meters long help move the traffic along the coast.

In both of the cases a pair of guys were walking the short distance through the well lit tunnels when they were swarmed by a group of young children (ages 6–14), grabbing for their pockets. When they tried to shoo them away the group of kids produced knives, and took their belongings. I'm not sure if the groups were the same (or even if the tourists were in the same tunnel), but one pair said the oldest boy of the gang was rather large for his age. Robbed by children… not exactly their finest moment.

Cliff's Woe

The last story that comes to mind is that of Cliff, a paramedic from the United States who arrived at the hostel a day or two before me. He's been abroad for almost as long as I have (leaving in mid-January of '06, making his way south through Central America), and made a foolish mistake upon entering Rio that cost him everything but the clothes on his back.

Cliff had just arrived in Rio via an expensive 72-hour bus ride from northern Brazil. Instead of paying an exorbanite taxi fare, he opted to take the public bus to the Botafogo part of town, where he had the address of a hostel.

He exited the bus at a park and started walking, when two men began approaching him. With a smile on his face the local extended his right hand for a handshake. He was saying something along the lines of welcome, when he produced with his left hand a seven inch knife.

Poking fun at Cliff

The knife wasn't directed at him, but held vertically against the mugger's chest, pointy-end up, generally concealing the weapon from view. The second man moved behind him, casually slid the backpack off his shoulders, took his waist belt, and patted him down for any remaining possessions. The two exited the scene, leaving Cliff with only his shorts and a t-shirt.

Now, there's one twist to all this that makes the situation all that more interesting. Cliff, a seasoned traveler compared to most, took a public bus into Rio de Janeiro and got off at a park after midnight. It was the middle of the night—although Cliff says that the park was well lit.

I heard this detail and just looked at him with disbelief. He rolled the dice and lost his chips.

So there's Cliff without a possession on him, in the middle of the night, in Rio de Janeiro. He slept on the beach that night, and found the U.S. embassy the following day.

The gate staff member at my embassy informed him that it was a weekend, and that all citizen services were unavailable until Monday morning. Cliff spent the next two nights sleeping on the beach, only eating only once when a McDonald's employee took pity on him.

Cliff would wander during the day and night, or sleep to try and fight off the hunger. He used the ocean to wash himself, and even tried asking a Mormon church that he came across for help, but they said their funds/aid were for Mormons only.

Monday morning came about and the embassy helped Cliff make a phone call to his bank to get a new card mailed to him. He has no family, friends, or former co-workers that he could call to ask for assistance. The embassy could not provide anything for him other than the calls, and sent him off to the police station to make a report.

It was at the police station that Cliff ran into the guy that's sleeping on the bunk below me. This guy was with his friend, who lost an iPOD when the tunnel children from the incident above pulled knives on them, and were making a police report for the insurance company.

Cliff was told about this hostel, given ride back with the English fellows, and taken care of by the staff. An extra shirt and pants were donated to Cliff from other travelers, and is now a member of the staff at the hostel (charged with helping to distribute and clean up breakfast). For this Cliff is given free breakfast and a place to sleep.

He is still without money, as he is waiting for his card to arrive.

And You?

What would you have done differently in Cliff's situation? Even if I lost everything, I would have surly found that hostel the same night and at least had shelter.

I posed the same robbery scenario to a brother of mine (with whom I've had one of my longest friendships). He may not be brother not by blood, but this former Marine scout sniper and I go back more than half our lives.

He wrote…

Good, serious, question. It is difficult to say how I would have reacted, but given my training and temperament I think I would have reacted the second I saw the knife being presented. (I would already have been on guard when the two men approached, especially at midnight).

You said the man with the knife presented his right hand to shake with and produced a knife with his left, pointing it up along his chest. I probably would have 1), used the proffered hand to pull him toward me, taking him off balance and enabling me to use my left hand to use his hand to drive the knife in his chest or 2) I would have gone at the knife with both hands (my training, you should have total control of the weapon in this situation) and drove it into his chest or throat with even more force. Then I would have moved on to man number two, if he hadn't fled by then.

The guy who took the pack off was less of a threat since he didn't present a weapon and he was more concerned with removing your friend of his goods than with fighting. (He would probably need two hands for this task, lessening the chance that he would have a weapon in hand). The pack also acts as (cumbersome) body armor in the event that the rear man pulls a blade. Also, it's weight and bulk are ideal for pushing an assailant off balance.

As an unrefereed alternative, your friend might have pulled his own knife from a pocket or waistband, after pretending to take out his passport, more money, ticket, etc. If he was wearing pants a reach to his sock to take out some "cash" could have been an opportunity to give the front man eye-full of sand. These methods are riskier, but could be employed in a last ditch effort in case he wasn't able to turn the man's knife on him.

Which takes me to a slightly unrelated topic. When traveling I prefer to wear sneakers, even if it's hot (I find Chuck-T's ideal). Sandals leave you in a bad position if you have to flee, chase, or kick. They also leave you feet exposed to nasty hazards like asphalt if you're hanging from a bus or driving a motorcycle and knife blades and stomping boots if you're in a fight. They can also cause you to loose your balance.

Another point: a single knife thrust (provided it wasn't to a critical organ) can be survived and you can still fight through it. In a knife fight you have to EXPECT to get stabbed. If your friend was stabbed he could have likely fought though it and prevailed. Many people (from seeing movies, no doubt) think that a single stab or gunshot would to any part of the body results in instant incapacitation. Unless the wound is to the central nervous system, this probably wouldn't be the case in real life. Even a heart wound can be survived for several seconds. This is why some people die of shock after being shot in the arm my a small caliber pistol, but others can take a full mag or 9mm or burst from a 5.56 to the chest and still keep fighting or running. It's all about your mind state.

Your friend is typical. That is, when confronted with a violent situation, he seized up. Most people are not mentally prepared to commit violent acts, even in their own defense. Understandably, they want the situation come to an end quickly, thus the appeasement approach. Counter-example: A friend of mine who lives in Colombia once killed three would-be kidnappers with a knife in a taxi. When I tell people this story they cringe, and gasp that my friend acted in a completely savage, atypical manner. They're right, he did act savagely and atypically, but he is alive today because he did so. And speaking from a common sense standpoint, did he really have any alternative?

Stay safe.

Three Rules

The three simples rules of Copacabana that were listed to me today by a staff member at this hostel:

  1. Don't walk in the tunnels
  2. Don't walk on the beach after dusk or before dawn
  3. Don't go into the favelas

He said that by following these rules you're likely not to encounter any problems. Some personal amendments come to mind:

  • Keep your guard up—you're not at home;
  • Always take a taxi after you've been drinking;
  • Don't buy drugs off unknown persons from the street;
  • Don't carry a daypack—all the locals use a plastic bag from a convenience store;
  • Carry a wad a low denomination bills you can hand over (or toss into the air) if threatened;
  • Avoid the police—who some say are the real thieves of Rio; and
  • Don't forget to put sunscreen on your pasty-white self

Comments:

Brazil

Craig | travelvice.com

February 6th, 2007

An interesting post on the Lonely Planet Forum: Security forces in Rio

Brazil

tom reddaway

March 12th, 2012

hi, my name is Thomas and I have lived in Rio on and off since 2007. Here are my top 5 muggings in cidade maravilhosa:
1) receiving 'head' from a girl I was going out with after dark on copacabana beach, i was approached by 3 men with a long ice pick, told to get down, be quiet and hand over all my belongings, which I did: 200 reais (oh dear, i had recently been to cash point, swore not to do that next time), and a basic phone, and they scrambled. The police 5 minutes later were unresponsive.

2) Sitting on the grass in Lapa (which has now been unecessarily removed, along with the lovely steps and cobbles to make way for modernised 'more european/american' plain paving). Young man approached me and my mate and shook our hands and asked for a sip of our drinks, seemed ok, then pulled up his shirt to reveal a revolver in his pants. we produced 10 reals and he fled.

3) Walking around Copa at 2am with girl. big crazy man ran up to me and went through all my pockets forcefully. he dislodged my credit card without knowing and it slipped onto floor. he didn't see it so i trod on it, and as i didnt have anything else he left and i moved my foot and put my card into my sock.

4) trying to get to barra at night, i got a bus which unfortunately left me stranded right by rocinha, the biggest favela. about 5 seconds after I got off (end of the line), a police car stopped me and, as they will nearly always do at night (as i write this i just got stopped and searched in the middle of leblon). One policeman opened my flies and button and pulled my underpants right open and felt me up, dick and balls. Seriously, a disgrace, they do that sort of shit..i count that as worse than mugging.

5) talking on my basic phone in lapa, put it in my pocket and a couple of moments later felt a hand dart in and grab it. i ran after the teenager and soon he joined a group of friends. i was drunk and angry and started questioning him and his mates, and even getting a bit close to try and see who had it, there were some girls involved too. very soon i realised that i had lost, and ran back to my crew. everyone i tell that story to says: THE BOTTOM LINE IS NEVER RESIST. LOSE YOUR MATERIAL SHIT AND NOT YOUR LIFE AND FUTURE.

FOR EVERY PERSON WHO WANTS TO MUG YOU IN RIO THERE ARE TEN PEOPLE WHO WANT TO MAKE LOVE TO YOU.

LEARN PORTUGUESE, YOU WILL HAVE A BETTER LIFE EXPERIENCE, NOT JUST IN BRAZIL.

I hope you have enjoyed my top 5 muggings. peace out.

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