RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (Reuters) – The murder of a soccer player and kidnapping of the mother of another have shown that not even Brazil’s pride and joy — soccer — is immune from the violent crime that sweeps over cities.
“Kidnappers, you bastards, you’ll pay for that,” wrote one angry soccer fan on the Internet in reaction to the kidnapping of the mother of Santos club star Robinho — a rising star who has been compared to Pele — by two armed men from a beach house on Saturday.
Widespread poverty and extravagant wealth, flourishing drugs and illegal arms trade and corrupt police all help to fuel crime in Latin America’s largest country, especially in cities such as Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro with their notorious slums, or “favelas.”
Fears of becoming a victim prey daily on the minds of Brazilians, rich and poor.
But soccer players, who are adored by millions of people here as a symbol of their hopes and dreams, have rarely been targeted and the new incidents were taken as a sign the violence is running out of control.
“The soccer cases are more symbolic in nature as they gain notoriety,” said Tulio Kahn who runs the Conjuntura Criminal think tank. “Comparisons with a war situation are not unfair.”
Such was the shock of the kidnapping of Robinho’s mother, Marina de Souza, that police appealed for people to report any information about it on a hotline.
“Please, any tip-off on the kidnapping. This way he’s going to play again, great as always,” another fan wrote. One day before Marina de Souza’s abduction, the lesser-known Claudinei Resende, 26, who until May played for Swedish club Helsingborg, was shot in the head in an apparent gang-related showdown in a night club in the southern city of Belo Horizonte.
NO ESCAPE FOR RICH OR POOR
With a homicide rate of 23 per 100,000 people, or a total of 43,600 killings in 2003, Brazil is one of the world’s most violent countries, comparable to some countries in conflict. The United States, in contrast, has a rate of about 5.6 victims per 100,000 people.
Traffic jams in Sao Paulo provide rich pickings for pistol-wielding thieves. The children of the wealthy go to school with escorts of bodyguards fit for a president.
In Rio, gun fights between gangs often close down main highways and the police invade the favelas armed for full-scale combat, with helicopters hovering overhead.
Night doorman Santos Almeida said he feels he’s in a war zone almost every night as police mount a checkpoint outside the building where he works in a posh district of Rio.
“They check cars and have machine guns ready to shoot, and I’m always ready to duck. It’s pretty scary,” he said.
According to the National Security Secretariat, the overall homicide rate was unchanged at that level since 2001, showing government anti-crime efforts have had little effect.
The latest UN-Habitat report on the State of the World’s Cities said Brazil’s organized crime and trafficking in drugs, guns and humans had seen a sharp increase in recent years. Homicides among youths had increased by 77 per cent over the past 10 years, largely because of the prevalence of firearms.
Sao Paulo leads the rankings in Brazil for kidnappings for ransom, including so-called “lightning kidnappings” when the victim is taken to a cash machine to make credit card withdrawals.