SAO PAULO, BRAZIL
KIDNAPPING seems to have become so much a part of daily life in Rio de Janeiro that some people are using the phenomenon to get across their own grievances.A woman pushing a baby carriage was spotted wearing a T-shirt that said: "It's no use to kidnap me. I'm a teacher," referring to teachers' low salaries. But the phenomenon is no joke to fashion designer Alice Tapajos, who rode home last week in a taxi after three days of incarceration by kidnappers in Rio de Janeiro. Ms. Tapajos' family paid an unspecified ransom. Kidnappers also recently released local Coca-Cola Company bottling executive, Paulo Aury Polonia, after 59 days of captivity. The week prior to Mr. Polonia's release, local police freed Rsangela Simoes, daughter of a successful gifts retailer, from a house where kidnappers had held her for eight days while awaiting a $2 million ransom. A new wave of kidnappings, more than 80 so far this year, has hit Brazil. According to the news weekly Veja, last year's ransom payments totaled $30 million. With almost daily news of a kidnapping, a victim's release, or a ransom payment, fear is becoming a regular part of many people's existence. "More and more the middle class is arming itself, isolating itself, surrounding itself with security companies," says Alba Zaluar, an anthropology professor at the University of Campinas. More than half this year's kidnappings have taken place in Rio de Janeiro, where poverty, drugs, and weak government have spurred crime. Unlike the 1960s and '70s, kidnappings in Brazil today have nothing to do with politics. Money is the motivator. Kidnapping resurged when the government in 1990 froze bank accounts as part of its inflation-fighting program. Suddenly, many criminals who had kept local numbered bank accounts were short of cash to buy drugs, law enforcement officials say. Both drug traffickers and petty thieves now find kidnapping to be a comparatively low-risk, big-money activity. "They robbed banks before, but now the amount of money in circulation has come down and banks have taken security measures," says lson Campello, director of the General Department of Specialized Police in Rio de Janeiro. Kidnappers have now turned to middle-class victims, such as Ms. Simoes, since the wealthy and top business executives are well protected. Sebastiao Camargo, one of Brazil's richest citizens, employs 200 security agents to protect his family and himself, according to Veja magazine. Many businessmen have armored their cars, hired bodyguards, installed alarms, and even trained would-be ransom negotiators. The Rio de Janeiro Commercial Association recently published a manual on preventing kidnapping and what to do if one occurs. Last week, Rio de Janeiro thieves returned a baby lion they snatched when robbing the car she was in. Once they saw the unexpected occupant, the thieves asked for, and got the equivalent of a $2,500 ransom. The deal also required the lion's owner to distribute 1,000 cans of powdered milk to poor children, a demand other kidnappers have made. Police say such demands gain criminals protection in Rio's mountaintop shantytowns. A crackdown has begun in response to the Rio de Janeiro kidnappings. Police have put more than 1,000 officers on the problem, and are now using a computer to match data on crimes. But even Specialized Police director Campello admits one of his main obstacles is that most people do not trust police. Ms. Zaluar, who has studied Rio de Janeiro drug trafficking, says she believes police are involved in some kidnappings because few cases are solved, though no direct proof has appeared. Last year, Brazil's Congress toughened penalties for kidnapping. But "what moves all this is the certainty of impunity," says Mr. Campello. "[People think] no one will investigate." Ultimately, says Zaluar, an end to the kidnappings will only come when public institutions are strong enough to unravel the ties built up during the 1980s between police, crime networks, politicians, and the poor.