Another perspective on crime in São Paulo

Having never been robbed – at least in the stick-‘em-up sense – while reporting on a motor race, I felt a trifle left out by all the clamour and brouhaha surrounding this weekend’s Brazlian GP. On Saturday night Jenson Button was spared from a potentially unpleasant encounter with an armed gang by the vigilance and skill of his driver, although the same gang is believed to have held up a group of Sauber mechanics when they left the circuit some time later.

It’s a cliché to describe Brazil as a country of great contrasts, but like most clichés the description has earned its status by being true. São Paulo has a particularly grim reputation, and I vividly remember my first visit there. Like no other great metropolis on earth, with the possible exception of Los Angeles, São Paulo immediately impresses and imposes with its size and the relentless unpleasantness of its architecture as you approach it by car. As we bumped along the freeway in the back of an old Fiat taxi it just grew and grew. The traffic was absurd. Cyclists were riding against the flow in the tiny gap between the lane and the barrier of the central reservation. It was utterly chaotic.

If you believe everything you hear about São Paulo, you’d probably not leave the boot of your taxi. The reality is that it’s certainly grim in parts, but that the fear of crime grips the tourists more firmly than it does the locals. I had to attend a press event in a hotel about a mile up the road. Of course, I took a taxi. It took about an hour. At one point I peeked out from underneath my bulletproof camouflage blanket and saw someone cycling past with an iPod tucked into his belt and the distinctive white earbuds stuffed in his ears. He either had very good insurance or he wasn’t as paranoid about robbery as I was.

After the 2007 race, many of us were late finishing because of the ‘cool fuel’ nonsense. A year or two earlier, a car carrying Toyota personnel had been ambushed and fired upon on the way home. As I left the circuit with two colleagues from AUTOSPORT it dawned on us that we didn’t have transport. We would have to step outside the safety of the circuit gates and hail a taxi. At 11 o’clock on a Sunday night it was a long time coming. We stood, in the rain, three blokes with moderately valuable laptops, waiting for an armed mob to descend upon us at any moment. It didn’t happen.

Anecdotally, 2010 seems to have been a pretty bad year for crime at the Brazilian Grand Prix. Is it actually worse, or are we just being tense? Once, on a charity bike ride through Kenya with Eddie Jordan (amongst others) I was alone on the road when I encountered a man loitering with a rather large machete; I sized up the situation and realised that the road wasn’t wide enough for me to evade him if he was intent on doing me a mischief. Instead, I stuck to my trajectory and gave him a cheery greeting as I passed within a machete’s swing of his position. He just looked at me as if I was slightly peculiar.

Sometimes the fear of crime is as intrusive and repellent as the act itself.

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  • Comments (4)
  1. What got to me about the reporting of the incident was the overbearing absurdity of it.
    I’ve been attacked walking down the street in my home town a few times, but from the way some were talking, you’d swear crime did not exist in this Great British haven.
    Sadly crime happens, especially when in a sprawling metropolis like Sao Paulo and when the F1 circus comes to town, so does the flash and the wealth. For some, this is an opportunity.

    Another thing I came across over the weekend was the sound of several people calling for F1 to leave Sao Paulo because of the crime – get a grip. The Formula 1 circus goes to China – a country with a dire human rights record.

    A bit of perspective is handy sometimes – thanks Stuart for providing some.

    • Aaron James
    • November 8th, 2010

    Great bit of perspective there Stuart.

    I think some of the reporting was a bit frenzied to be honest.

    What is it at the moment with the F1 paddock press, whipping themselves up into a frothing mess about absolutely anything that deviates from the ‘perceived’ norm?

    Several journalists have been taking potshots at the ‘stay at home’ crew. But I’m starting to wonder if those who are economical with race attendance might have a slightly better grip on reality and are better able to put events into appropriate context than those permanently cocooned by the f1 bubble.

    • Steven Roy
    • November 8th, 2010

    Ispent a week in Sao Paulo a few years ago. Nothing to do with the race just business. I had heard all the horror stories and heard a few more there but after a couple of days I decided to risk leaving my hotel and go for a walk and never felt remotely threatened. I managed a couple of conversations with a few locals and they were clearly comfortable wandering around without armed escorts so I stopped worrying.

    I lived in Paris for a while and was walking home alone at 2am one morning after a night out. I took a short cut through a narrow alley and was faced with 4 rough looking characters coming towards me spread out across the width on the alley. I realised at that moment I was wearing a Scotland rugby shirt which might increase the chance of a problem.

    I decided there was no point turning and running so I would just need to walk towards them like I was not worried. One of them spotted the shirt and asked if I was Scottish and when I said yes they exchanged glances and I thought I was in real trouble.

    The four of them started singing Flower of Scotland so I joined in. After a couple of verses we all shook hands and continued on our separate ways. I considered a range of possible outcomes from initially spotting them but what happened never entered my thoughts.

    • Stuart C
    • November 9th, 2010

    @Aaron James

    You make a very good point. I suppose the thing with the F1 paddock posse is that the news gene pool is rather shallow, especially in the internet era. Few people dare leave the press room or paddock area in case they miss out on some ‘vital’ nugget that has to be Tweeted instantly. On the other hand, the same can be said of the bloggers and forum dwellers who don’t go to races and aren’t involved in the sport in a professional capacity; they tend to exhibit similar symptoms of collective delusion at times. Some of the stuff I read in such sources is way off base…

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