story of a kidnapping

Sao Paulo, Brazil


'Pay or Die' in Brazil


* Kidnapping is on the rise in Latin America, fed by the falling economy. Bodyguard services and sales of bulletproof vehicles are booming.


SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Sergio Bezerra sat on the sidewalk a defeated man, the prisoner of two young gangsters who were letting him take a breather after keeping him locked for hours inside the trunk of a car.


The sun rose and the neighborhood around him stirred awake. His kidnappers told him to keep his eyes trained on the ground, but Bezerra could hear footsteps going past, the men and women of the slum, or favela, heading to work.


"Good morning," they called out, "bom dia," as if it were a normal thing to see a business executive in suit and tie in their favela, being held at gunpoint. Dozens of people walked past. No one was brave enough to call police.


Bezerra isn't angry with the people of the favela. He understands the fear that kept them from helping him. He understands, too, that kidnapping has become something almost normal in Sao Paulo, as much a part of the fabric of life in favelas as it is in the high-society gatherings where people exchange kidnapping horror stories.


"You get together with friends at social events and people say, 'Such and such just married off his daughter, and such and such is kidnapped, and such and such just paid a big ransom,' " said Bezerra, a 42-year-old banker. "We live in golden cages, surrounded by bodyguards, wondering if the kidnappers are watching us."


Last year, 240 men, women and children were kidnapped in Sao Paulo state, which surrounds South America's largest city and is the epicenter of a kidnapping epidemic that has seen outbreaks in other Latin American cities, including Buenos Aires and Mexico City.


A regionwide economic crisis--which has increased the ranks of the unemployed and hit hard at police budgets--appears to be feeding the crime wave. In greater Buenos Aires, home to 11 million residents, one person is kidnapped every 36 hours, according to a study by the daily Argentine newspaper Clarin. Most are released unharmed after a few hours, the victims of what are known as "express kidnappings."


In Sao Paulo, kidnapping prevention has become de rigueur for the city's elite. Private citizens employ 3,500 bodyguards. About 15,000 bulletproof vehicles transport executives, politicians and family members around the city.


Bezerra had no bodyguards or armored sport-utility vehicle when he fell into the hands of a large kidnapping band, a group of at least a dozen criminals operating with the ruthlessness and secrecy of an Al Qaeda terrorist cell.


For 11 days, he was an object with a value, his price set by Sao Paulo's kidnapping market. Fear, family love and the duration of the kidnapping were all part of the final business equation that determined his ransom, which his brother paid in daylight on a Sao Paulo street corner to more than a dozen criminals armed with submachine guns.


Bezerra, a divorced father of two, is an executive at Bicbanco, a regional bank owned by his family that posted $11 million in profits last year. He is a shy, unassuming man with long eyelashes and a tall, lanky physique and didn't think of himself as a target. "I lived a very quiet life," he said.


He was driving home, after a busy Wednesday with clients, when three men in police uniforms ordered him to pull over on a crowded avenue. It was the beginning of a surreal journey into a nether world of cruelty, violence and absurdity.


One day, a blindfolded Bezerra would overhear the mother of one of his captors arguing with the teenager: "When your father gets home, I'm going to tell him what you're doing!"


After a few days, Bezerra came to understand the businesslike logic behind even the more demented aspects of his kidnapping. For example, only once did his captors threaten to kill him--just before they put him on the phone with his brother.


They cocked a gun to his head. "They wanted me to sound completely destroyed," he said. The fear in Bezerra's voice when he talked helped drive up the price of his ransom. Once he got off the phone, they left him alone, blindfolded on a lumpy mattress, where he would spend up to 20 hours at a stretch.


Sergio Bezerra's kidnapping was an ordinary one by Sao Paulo standards, garnering no headlines during his captivity and a single magazine interview after his release. A handful of the city's most prominent kidnapping victims have paid ransoms reaching $1 million. Bezerra's likely was a fraction of that amount. For reasons of personal safety, he declines to say how much.


According to police, an increasing number of Sao Paulo's kidnapping victims are middle-class residents who pay $15,000 to be freed. During a recent typical day, eight people were being held by kidnapping gangs: four men, three women and a 15-year-old boy.


"Eight are not so many when you stop to consider that there are almost 40 million people in the state of Sao Paulo," said Saulo de Castro Abreu, the region's secretary of public security. "This is a problem we are beginning to get under control."


De Castro was appointed in January, with a mandate to get tough on kidnappers after the notorious two-month abduction of a prominent advertising executive last year. De Castro has since broken up several kidnapping bands, including one led by a pint-sized criminal whose band, or quadrilha, often pulled off two or three abductions in a day.


"They started robbing freight trucks and banks," De Castro said of the kidnapping gang. "But when that dried up" because of increased security measures, "they started taking people."


The criminal bands have their origins in the political abductions of the 1960s in Brazil, Argentina and other Latin American countries. Since then, kidnapping has been a crime fad, coming into fashion every decade or so, dying out in the face of police crackdowns, then reappearing.


In Mexico, kidnapping has once again reached the peak levels of the 1990s, with 200 to 300 cases reported in the last 12 months. (The exact number is uncertain because many people refuse to contact the authorities.) The victims include high-ranking police officers and the relatives of soccer stars and movie actors.


In Sao Paulo, kidnapping came back into vogue two years ago. Only 19 people were kidnapped in the state in 1999. A year later, the figure had jumped to 267. The criminals had learned that taking humans hostage was infinitely safer than robbing banks--and, when done right, it could be just as profitable.


"The most organized bands will operate with 10 to 20 people," said Jose Jacobsen Neto, president of the association of private security companies in Sao Paulo. The abductors operate in cells, dividing the work into separate tasks: One group researches potential victims; another pulls off the capture; others hold the victim and collect the ransom.


"The different units will communicate with each other on cell phones or on the Internet," Jacobsen said. "One unit doesn't know who's in the other. So if one is captured, the others will be safe."


Bezerra's abductors operated that way. The head of the kidnapping band was an educated, well-spoken man. Separate teams abducted and released him. The tedious work of guarding him fell to teenage criminals, most of whom had never met before. Bezerra spent hours listening to them get acquainted, trying to outdo one another with stories about their exploits as "bandidos."


Bezerra was following his usual route home in November when he was abducted during the bright late afternoon of a Southern Hemisphere spring. The three "police officers" who pulled him over were part of a band of kidnappers, although Bezerra didn't realize that at first.


"We're arresting you for receiving stolen automobiles," one of the men said. Something didn't seem right about the three, Bezerra thought, but because they were pointing guns, he didn't have any choice but to obey as they handcuffed him and led him to their car.


They ordered him into the trunk, forcing him to bend his 5-foot-11 frame into the smallish space. "If I had known this guy was so big," one kidnapper said, "I would have gotten a bigger car."


Bezerra spent an hour inside the trunk as they drove back and forth across Sao Paulo's notoriously traffic-clogged streets. Finally, the car stopped. The kidnappers took Bezerra's cell phone and called his brother.


The brother contacted the police. From that moment on, the Bezerra family's actions would be guided by police negotiation experts. The family filed no formal complaint--and told employees at Bezerra's bank that he had taken a vacation--so that the story of the kidnapping wouldn't appear in the media. News coverage drives up ransom demands.


The police offered another, odd piece of advice: "Don't pay right away. Wait a few days." Why? the family asked. "Because if the kidnappers see that you pay $100,000 in two days, they'll think you can pay $200,000 in four days and will ask for more."


Any rescue by the understaffed Sao Paulo police was out of the question. "It's either pay or die," Bezerra remarked later.


The kidnappers took him to a small basement room in a cinder-block favela home, where the only furniture was an old bed with a dirty, frayed mattress. He spent three days there, often blindfolded, guarded by groups of young men.


"The people who are guarding you are adolescents; they are 18, 19 years old at most," Bezerra said. "They have a desire to prove to themselves, and to the people that hire them, that they can kill."


One of his young captors told him, in chillingly direct language, "Look, if I get to kill you, it's good for me, it's good for my reputation."


On the third day, Bezerra heard the leader's voice again, instantly recognizable because he spoke a more articulate, educated Portuguese than his underlings.


The leader wanted to talk about Bezerra's ransom. He knew that his captive had a medical degree and addressed him as "doctor," although Bezerra had long ago given up any notion of being a physician. The kidnappers also knew facts about his family life, work habits and the financial details of his small bank.


Bezerra estimates that it must have taken them a month to gather so much information. But there was one thing they didn't know, and Bezerra thought that it might work as ransom-reducing leverage. "You got the wrong guy," he said. "I'm not even a real member of the family. I'm adopted."


The kidnapping leader mentioned this the next time he talked with Bezerra's brother. By now, the brother had learned from the police to play it cool: "You're right, he's not my real brother.... So listen, call me back in 30 minutes," he told the kidnappers. "I'm on my way to work now, and I can't talk."


The leader started to query Bezerra about his finances. The money in his checking account wasn't enough. The problem, Bezerra said, was that most of his assets were tied up in real estate that was hard to sell because of Brazil's economic crisis.


"Yes, yes, I know," the kidnapper said, sounding a rare note of empathy. "I've invested in real estate too."


Later, the young underlings put him in the trunk of another car and took him far away from Sao Paulo. He spent seven days in a windowless room from which he could hear cows mooing.


"We're going to send you back by mail," one of his captors announced finally. They began an execution ritual that involved driving him to another location and clicking a gun near his head. Then they stopped. "We're going to give you one more chance," one of the captors said.


They put him on the phone with his brother.


"I was going to die five minutes earlier," Bezerra recalled. "I wasn't in any condition to speak."


Finally, he managed to sputter: "They're going to kill me. Give them what they want."


On the 10th day of Bezerra's ordeal, his brother made the payment in a Sao Paulo neighborhood, facing 16 men with machine guns.


The next morning, the kidnappers turned friendly and chatty.


"You know why we did this, right?" one asked. They launched into a series of explanations about needing money. That evening, they put him back in the car; when it stopped, they told him to stand up and walk straight ahead and not look back.


When the car had driven away, Bezerra took off his blindfold and found himself on a darkened road. He was free. But before he had much time to think about precisely where he was, he heard a motorcycle approaching. The sputtering engine sounded familiar--it belonged to one of his kidnappers.


He had become the target of a "kidnapping within a kidnapping." Some kidnapping bands are so large that one group splits off and tries to snatch the victim right after he's released, to collect a second ransom.


Bezerra hid in a ditch near the darkened roadside. Finally, the kidnappers left. But he still had one last indignity to suffer. A pack of dogs chased him. He climbed up a utility pole to get away from the animals, staying there until daylight, when it was safe to come down and try to find his way home.


When he reached a taxi stand in a nearby town, one driver turned away. After 11 days in captivity, Bezerra looked like a wandering ghost, unshaven, wild-eyed and shallow-faced. He finally got home that evening.


His former wife had told their two daughters that he had been on a business trip to Japan. But as soon as the girls saw their gaunt father, they knew that it was a lie. Everyone in the family is guarded now, 24 hours a day.


Since his ordeal, Bezerra has spent a lot of time thinking. He holds little rancor toward his kidnappers and even feels a bit of pity for them. "These people won't have long lives," he said.


From behind the bulletproof windows of his car and the security doors at his apartment, Bezerra sees people who have never been kidnapped go about their lives the way he once did. They window-shop; they take long walks at night. "Are they crazy?" he thinks. "Don't they know?"