The wave of so-called express kidnappings in Sao Paulo was shocking enough. Assailants would invade a car, force the driver at gunpoint to proceed to the nearest cash machine to empty his or her account, then run up charges on the victim's credit cards.
A dentist told Istoe magazine that the gang threatened to kill her if they couldn’t get money out of her account: she was robbed of 7,000 reais (US $3500). An executive lost 18,000 reais and was dumped outside the Paraisopolis slum. One victim told the popular television show Fantastico she'd been hit twice in the face and had to get stitches.
More stunning still was that when police arrested nine of the 16 they say are responsible for the assaults, they were not the usual criminal elements but rather young men from privileged backgrounds. Some are employed, others are students at private universities. In the first half of this year, police say, they were responsible for approximately 50 robberies in Sao Paulo, spending their loot on designer clothes, expensive drinks and lavish parties at rented houses.
In April, police arrested a key member of the gang, Bruno Rodrigues Guedes de Jesus, who's been sentenced to nine years in prison. Further arrests followed in the last few weeks. The accused deny the allegations.
Why would they do it? That was what Brazilians wanted to know.
“It is evident that the motivation is not social inequality, but the lack of moral values,” sociologist Carla Dieguez, from Sao Paulo’s Foundation School of Sociology and Politics, told Istoe. Crimes among the middle-class have been a phenomenon since the 1990s, Dieguez said.
They are a result of a generation that does not know how to deal with failure and longs for success at any cost. It’s not enough to have a car, access to university or designer clothes. There is always a desire for more.
Other reports quoted psychologists talking about the rise of unbridled consumerism in Brazil. A blogger identifying as Duda from Bahia, a northeastern state, responded that the vast majority of Brazilians managed to live on small incomes without resorting to crime.
They don't wear designer clothes or consume expensive drinks, yet they also don't have their faces or names posted on police pages. And they don’t expect a psychologist to say, how do these people manage to live in a society and be up to date, and live on a minimum salary with the demands of rampant consumerism?
Brazilians raised the role of family values in the affair. On the portal Panorama Brasil, journalist Davi Brandao asked, "What leads a person to do all this? Could it be lack of love? Would it be to draw the attention of parents?” He wrote that parents need to spend time talking to their children, ensuring they know what their kids are up to.
In modern times, the absence of parents in the home could motivate examples like this, where youths who had everything to be great professionals opt for the school of crime.
On his blog, Adao Braga, a father of two living in Bahia, cautioned against blaming parents:
It is not so simple to say what makes certain youths decide on crime. Certainly the parents are not the only ones to blame for their children's decisions. I observe with disbelief criticisms that generalize.
Some parents collaborate with criminal children, Braga said, while others do their best to instill good values in their kids. But ultimately, each of us chooses our own path. “In life we have to decide," he said.
Adding one more element to the discussion, Brandao, in his posting, pointed out that the case "breaks down prejudices, especially, of the bourgeoisie, in associating crime and violence with the poor, the slum dweller, the Afro-descendent, the homeless.” Rather than coming from the favelas, Brazil's shanty towns, the Gang of Playboys, as the carjackers have become known, dumped their victims there after relieving them of their possessions.
That still left unclear why well-to-do young men would risk prison to rob from their fellow citizens. Intrigued by the question, Brazilians can be counted on to monitor the trials of the accused for any clues.
(Dom Phillips is the Rio de Janeiro correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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