60 Minutes blog

Allison Langdon - My time on patrol in Brazil

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Sao Paulo is Brazil’s largest city with roughly the same population as ALL of Australia. It’s a concrete jungle where multi-million homes that are heavily fortified press against favelas, makeshift suburbs that stretch on for kilometres.

The gap between rich and poor here is just extraordinary, and it’s for this reason that Sao Paulo has for many years been known as the kidnapping capital of the world.

We really had no idea what to expect arriving at the anti-kidnapping squad’s office, and certainly never expected that within a matter of hours we’d be out on patrol in one of the city’s most notorious kidnapping areas, wearing bullet proof jackets and pulling over suspicious looking young men. Our six car convoy would randomly stop, and with their guns drawn a dozen police officers would search for weapons, stolen credit cards and victims’ I.D’s – tell-tale signs of a kidnap.

Sao Paulo is an exciting but tough town. The prisons are overflowing, and the only defence against the crime of kidnapping is officers of the Anti-Sequestro Division – the D.A.S (sequestro by the way is Portuguese for kidnap). These men and women are amazing individuals, they have dedicated their lives to rescuing hostages and catching the bad guys. Often they can spend 15 to 20 nights away from their own families as they work around the clock to save a person’s life.

Even though kidnapping is still a big problem in Sao Paulo, the officers have been having huge success. More than 10 years ago when the division was set up about 30 people were being held in captivity at any one time, and some would be held for months on end. These police officers lived the nightmare right alongside the families as they bargained for their loved ones lives’. The detectives would often risk their own lives to save a hostage. Slowly their work is paying off, many of the gang leaders responsible for the horrendous kidnap and torture of victims are in jail, or dead. And hundreds of victims are now free thanks to these brave men and women.

One of those rescued by the officers of the Anti-Sequestro Division was Anderson – a lovely young man in his 20’s who was kidnapped at gunpoint by two men outside his apartment. He’d been targeted because his father owned a small restaurant and the gang thought his family would have money. Anderson spent 28 days being moved from safe house to safe house as his captors continued to threaten to kill him, cut off his ears and fingers (as so often did happen) and torture him. His family couldn’t pay the half a million ransom the kidnappers were demanding so the police were called in. They were able to intercept a phone call between the captors and Anderson’s father and that led them to one of the kidnappers. Initially he wouldn’t give up Anderson’s location, but after two days of interrogation he caved and the police moved in. To see the vision of the moment Anderson realised he was safe brings a tear to your eye. He had truly believed he was going to die, and had in fact taken the shoelaces from his shoes and was preparing to commit suicide.

Speaking to Anderson four years after his ordeal I could tell that he has not recovered, he still battles depression and tries to push it to the back of his mind – as if it didn’t happen. I don’t know how anyone could ever feel safe again. As Jorge Atalla – the filmmaker who spent four years with the squad said to me “no victim gets over it, they are never the same again.” And I can understand why – waking up each day wondering if it was your last, if today was the day that they were going to cut off your finger and send it to your family so they hurry up and pay, I’d never be the same again either. You’d spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder, never feeling safe.

Over the years the crime of kidnapping in Sao Paulo has evolved. Holding victims for months on end, as they did with Anderson, takes an enormous amount of planning and money. You need to research your victim, learn their movements and put them under surveillance, and once abducted they need to be held in a safe house as the family negotiates the release. The longer the negotiation drags on the more time police have to find those responsible, and it’s for this reason that the gangs have changed their tactics.

It’s become far easier for the criminals to kidnap someone for a few hours or days rather than months. It’s often a more violent crime, but quicker and still lucrative. In the space of a couple of hours the kidnappers can empty someone’s bank account, then leave their hostage on the side of the road somewhere before moving onto their next target. It’s known as “flash kidnapping” and one gang can easily kidnap three or more people in a day. Often the family isn’t involved, so the police are never alerted until after the crime and it makes it incredibly difficult to then catch those responsible.

When we were in Sao Paulo the officers moved in on a man they had been investigating for a year. Livio Bruno was second-in-charge of a notorious flash kidnapping gang. A tattoo on his forearm that says mother is what gave him away. This horrendous individual has terrorised at least 115 victims, and once the police arrested him at dawn as he slept in bed, dozens more victims came forward saying he was the man who had kidnapped them at gunpoint.

Stories like this one remind us of how lucky we are to live in a country where we can go about our day without fear. I hate to imagine what Sao Paulo would be like if it wasn’t for the good people we spent our time with. The police officers who do this incredibly dangerous work because they know it’s the right thing to do.

User comments
I am visiting Sao Paulo in just over a month and glad i watched this. I understand that the violence there is often and large, but not in this scope. I am hoping the relatives i am visiting will keep me away from countering any of this type of 'danger' when i visit, thanks for documenting this.
Yes, It's easy to go to Brazil and emphasize on the crime there and that all of Brazil is a dangerous country. Why don't you go there and show the good, the unbelievably places to live? Brazil is such a large country with so many people. Can you imagine the Brazilian population in Australia? I'm sure it would be the same. A country with so many people living, it's very hard to control but the police there are always doing a great job. Australia will eventually become the same with population growing intensively. Unfortunately the crime here has been growing every day and the police are not ready for that.
For anyone who found this story interesting, you should check out a movie called 'City Of God'. Excellent journalism Allison
Hello We are an Australian family living in Sao Paulo for almost 4 years. We came here with our eyes wide open and yes it gives you an amazing appreciation of how Australian's are so lucky! The show portrays the dark underbelly of a city of 15 plus million people where there is the super rich and those with nothing. Unfortunately this leads to kidnapping, home invasions and street crime. My Brasilian friends detest this side to Sao Paulo and would like it to change. The key issues for Brasil are corruption and education, these are the two things holding brasil back. The poor citizens of Brasil (more than 100,000,000 people or 60% of the country) see Sao Paulo as a chance to change their life, but unfortunately more often than not they end up in a favela struggling to survive. I have grown to love this country and its people and i hope the government can turn the tide. I see the next 4-6 years as Brasil's big chance with the upcoming World Cup and Olympics. Best regards Ross Ashby
What a horrible, terrifying way to live. Makes you realise how lucky we are. Absolute hats off to the police who dedicate and risk their lives for this horrendous situation. What can we do to help?
How lucky we are to be at australia. So sad what goes on around the world l dont know anything worst then being kidnapped losing your freedom and being in the hands of cold hearted criminals. Not knowing what they are going to do with you. Thanks 60 mintues for making everyone aware of what goes around and showing the police officers there. By making people aware l am sure there will be people to support the police officers there and also makes everyone aware to be careful when travelling there.
Its great that you visited sao paulo. I lived in sao paulo for 3 and a half months in 2009. Loved it all, but yes you do have to be very careful. There are certain places you dont go in sao paulo! I cant wait to see your report on sunday

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