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Tourists bemoan wave of robberies on Rio's beaches and streets

Homer Wiggins took a scant 10 steps from the front door of the Rio Palace Hotel in fashionable Copacabana -- and got mugged. Three youths with knives got away with his camera, his watch, and some money. But the young robbers got worried when they saw two policemen at the hotel entrance and apparently decided not to stick around. They missed Mr. Wiggins's wedding ring and billfold.

``I can tell you I was scared when they pulled their knives on me,'' Wiggins said in his broad Texas accent. ``This sort of thing doesn't happen back in Dallas, especially so close to a hotel.''

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Wiggins's experience as a tourist in Rio is not unique. Local police estimate that there are 500 robberies a day in Rio de Janeiro -- and one of the prime targets are the tourists in the Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon sections of this sprawling city. Police in other major cities report a similar wave of robberies.

So serious has the Rio problem become that police are stepping up patrols of beach-front areas.

The city tourist office is concerned that the Rio's image as a vacation mecca for tourists from abroad is being damaged by the growing number of robberies.

In Leblon, police Sgt. Paulo Dias estimates that his office gets reports of about 10 robberies of tourists a day.

At the fashionable Rio Sheraton Hotel, just beyond Leblon, nestled in a small, somewhat isolated cul-de-sac, one employee says it is not unusual to have ``half a dozen or more'' hotel guests report robberies each day.

``I got into a hotel taxi to go out to dinner,'' one hotel guest says, ``and we hadn't gone three traffic lights before we had youths with knives pounding on our locked windows and doors. We got to the restaurant safely, but it was a little scary.

``Coming back, in a regular taxi off the street, it happened again and these kids wuth knives were demanding our money as the taxi paused for a traffic light. Their hands were in the cab. But the driver sped away through a red light. When we got back to the hotel, however, my wife was missing a necklace she was wearing at dinner.''

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Police are telling motorists that they should not stop fully at traffic lights at night -- that pausing briefly is enough. Otherwise cars are easy targets for robbers.

Tourist officials tell visitors not to take valuables to the beach or to wear expensive jewelry when they go out. They also warn against riding public buses.

Behind this wave of robbery is Brazil's troubled economic situation. Millions are out of work and many of those who do work eke out only marginal incomes.

Rio State Gov. Leonel Brizola says economic and social conditions are to blame. ``Not until they are corrected can we see improvement in the crime situation.''

Others suggest the problem is more complex.

``There is a breakdown of law and order,'' complains a letterwriter in the newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo. ``There is no respect for property and the sanctity of the individual. Our cities are too impersonal. We need to restore the attitude of caring for one another.''

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