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World Perspective | SOUTH AMERICA

In Rio, Running a Red Light Can Be a Safe, Legal Maneuver

July 24, 1999|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIO DE JANEIRO — Lawlessness breeds lawlessness.

The citizens of Rio learned that lesson in compelling fashion recently when City Hall decided that it will no longer fine drivers who run red lights between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Although the decision would seem an invitation to anarchy in many cities, here it was seen as an act of prudence and realism. The policy responds to a spate of carjackings at red lights that have left drivers dead or wounded.

"We cannot ignore the fact that people are enduring a very difficult situation," said Guilherme Alonso, chief of the municipal traffic agency. "Each of us in our own area of responsibility must cooperate in softening the consequences of urban violence. . . . The safety of the citizen comes first."

Citations will not be issued to drivers who run red lights late at night at low speed, authorities said in announcing the policy last week. In addition, the city will adjust traffic signals to shorten the duration of red lights and reduce crime risks to motorists.

Driving at night in Brazil has always been fraught with perils. Drivers approaching intersections in Rio and Sao Paulo worry not just about carjackers but also about getting rear-ended or broadsided by other drivers who are worried about carjackers.

Rio's choice of a lesser evil dramatizes the way crime and fear permeate Latin America's cities. From Mexico City to Buenos Aires, the number of robbers in cahoots with taxi drivers makes taking a cab an edge-of-the-seat experience. Many well-to-do Latin Americans prefer apartments to houses because the latter are vulnerable to home invaders.

Rio's geography contributes to the omnipresence of crime: Densely populated slums perch on hills overlooking upper- and middle-class flatlands. In some neighborhoods, residents can't sell their apartments because the windows are periodically shattered by stray bullets fired during machine-gun battles in the hills.

As for red-light carjackings, the final straw came July 14. The victim was Edson Gadelha da Silva, 45, a systems analyst and father of two. He stopped at a street corner in his Fiat Palio sedan in Madureira, a historic slum, or favela, known for its samba musicians.

Two gunmen accosted Gadelha, and he was shot fatally in the head as he tried to drive away, police said. The gunmen, suspected members of a carjacking gang, escaped after exchanging gunfire with police officers who happened to be nearby. It was the third recent carjack killing.

The next day, officials announced the red-light changes. Sociologist Rubem Cesar Fernandes, an anti-crime activist and leader of the Viva Rio civic group, described it as "a good symbolic response as far as addressing people's fears and their relationships with the law."

The city's move, Fernandes acknowledged, collides with the spirit of a stringent new federal traffic code intended to reform driving habits in a society whose attachment to the automobile rivals California's but whose accident rates are far worse. Moreover, many carjackings and robberies of motorists take place during daylight rush hours on snarled thoroughfares.

A two-year surge in car-related robberies has left Rio with the worst rate of such crimes in the nation. But other crimes have decreased as the result of concerted, sometimes militaristic and heavy-handed police operations targeting the slums.

After Rio's murder rate peaked at an alarming 80 homicides per 100,000 residents five years ago, the number has dropped to about 47 per 100,000, Fernandes said. The rate in Los Angeles is about 11 per 100,000.

"There was a big focus put on slums, while there was no attention to crime which requires investigation and gathering intelligence," he said. "Car robberies kept growing, with strong participation by corrupt policemen. . . . To dismantle the networks you need intelligence, not just territorial action. It's more sophisticated."

The recently elected governor of Rio de Janeiro state has promised more thoughtful and effective law enforcement strategies.

Meanwhile, Rio natives likely will adjust well to the traffic changes because of their freewheeling road culture: A lot of people didn't stop at red lights at night anyway, Fernandes said.

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