By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
Published: May 3, 2009
Published: May 3, 2009
After being robbed twice in traffic, once at gunpoint, João Neves cast aside whatever concerns he had about the global economic crisis and bought himself an armored car two months ago.
“Even though the crisis does exist, I consider my well-being and my security a priority,” said Mr. Neves, the owner of a small marketing agency. “I am afraid of being shot dead.”
Rather than buy a new car, though, Mr. Neves opted for a 2005 Volkswagen Passat capable of withstanding bullets fired from a .44 Magnum revolver or a 9-millimeter submachine gun.
Brazilians have already trimmed their appetites for appliances and electronics in the recession, but bulletproofing is one expense they are not giving up easily. Once the domain of the very rich, armored cars have become a middle- and upper-middle-class obsession, especially in this huge city notorious for roadside assaults and kidnappings.
Officially, crime is on the wane. But as the economy slides and the country sheds jobs, there is a palpable dread that street crime will get worse as well, economists here say. Many Paulistanos, as São Paulo residents are called, say the interminable stop-and-go traffic and the wide gap between haves and have-nots are recipes for assaults and carjackings, especially now that Brazil’s boom times have come to a halt.
“It is not a question of if you are going to be assaulted, it is when it is going to happen,” said Craig Bavington, who runs a tourist agency based here. After being assaulted twice, he decided to buy a used armored car two years ago when his wife became pregnant with their first child.
More than 7,000 vehicles were armored for civilian use in Brazil in 2008, up from 1,782 a decade earlier, and the pace has continued in 2009 despite the economy’s dispiriting first quarter, according to the Brazilian Association of Bulletproof Manufacturers.
A decade ago, there were just a handful of armoring companies in Brazil. Today there are about 120.
São Paulo leads the country — and the world — in making and selling armored cars. Rio de Janeiro, a city with legitimate concerns about stray bullets from gang warfare in the favelas, or shantytowns, overhanging the city, is Brazil’s second-largest market.
The government, perhaps unwittingly, has helped perpetuate the bulletproofing wave. With industrial production slowing last year, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration removed a tax on the car industry, saving buyers from 5 to 7.5 percent.
The change was so popular that the government recently took similar action for electronics and appliances, hoping to stop the bleeding in those industries as well.
So while car sales have suffered in other parts of the world, they have surged here in the past four months, the longest streak of monthly sales increases since 2002, according to the National Association of Car Manufacturers. And when car sales are strong, industry officials say, bulletproofing invariably follows. With so many companies now in the field, the cost of armoring a car has fallen in Brazil in the past decade, to about $22,000 from $55,000, opening the business to a new category of consumer.
A decade ago, BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes and Jeep Cherokees were the models most sought after for armoring; today, Toyota, Volkswagen and Chevrolet are in the top five. Ultimately, however, crime is the force behind it all. Economic contagion in the late 1990s spread from Asia to Brazil, sinking the currency’s value here and leading to record unemployment and high poverty.
In 1999, the city of São Paulo recorded a murder rate of nearly 53 per 100,000 people, according to the state’s Department of Public Safety — much worse than New York City has ever recorded. In the late 1990s, the United Nations ranked Jardim Ângela, in São Paulo, as the most violent neighborhood in the world.
Since then, the murder rate in São Paulo has fallen by 78 percent and vehicle thefts by 38 percent, though armed robberies have dropped by only 6 percent. More police officers are on the streets, especially on big, congested avenues, said Tulio Kahn, the São Paulo state coordinator of planning and analysis. Global positioning systems and coded locking devices have helped many owners track and retrieve their stolen cars.
And yet, Mr. Kahn said the drop in the crime statistics “has not kept people from continuing to feel insecure.”
A new wave of “flash” or “express” kidnappings, unplanned assaults in which robbers take their captives to cash machines and then free them after a few hours, has not helped matters. “This type of crime has really scared people,” Mr. Kahn said.
A commodity-led boom in Brazil in the past several years gave many Paulistanos the money to fight back. More stable inflation set off an unprecedented expansion in consumer credit. Car sales surged to record levels, topping 2.8 million in 2008, up from 1.9 million in 2006; according to government statistics, there are about 6.4 million cars on the roads in São Paulo, a city with a population of 11 million.
The ability to buy cars in installments also helped make armored cars more affordable to middle- and upper-middle-class professionals like Mr. Neves. Today, dentists, children of small businessmen, even shoe store owners are buying armored cars, many of them used, said João Jorge Chamlian, owner of Auto Miami, a dealership here for armored cars.
On the city’s outskirts, at the hangar-size assembly plant for Truffi, one of Brazil’s largest armoring companies, some 100 workers installed yellow Kevlar and thick glass windows one recent morning. The bulletproof armor adds about 400 pounds to a car’s weight, which reduces gas mileage and increases wear and tear.
For Mr. Neves, who spends more than two and a half hours a day commuting, the more protection the better. He was shaken, he said, when a client of his was shot dead by a robber who took only the man’s watch. “When you are inside an armored car,” Mr. Neves said, “you feel as if you are inside a fortress.”
For Alessandra Amara, a bulletproof car became a necessary expense three years ago, she said, after she was robbed for the 11th time in little more than 10 years. “Having an armored car in this city is essential,” said Ms. Amara, 34, who works in the financial department of a car dealership. “I have been robbed every way imaginable.”
Once, thieves abducted her in her car at gunpoint and made her pull money from two bank machines before freeing her. Another night, as she waited in her car at a red light, a gunman stole her wallet as witnesses silently stood by.
The last straw came when she was leaving work in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Suddenly, a boy slammed a stone through her window and grabbed for her purse. She took her foot off the clutch and crashed into the car ahead of hers. She clung to the purse and the thief ran away.
She arrived home, trembling with fear. Soon after, she became pregnant, and she and her husband decided to buy a used armored car. “If the government can’t keep me safe,” Ms. Amara said, “then I have to go out and look for that security on my own.”
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