In the 1970’s Sao Paulo was the fastest growing city in the world. Migrants from the north east of Brazil moved to this huge metropolis as, day in and day out, the lorries and trains carrying them entered the city. Simple people, long hardened to poverty in the drought-stricken region they came from; crowded, tired, expectant arrivals ready to take on any work as cleaners, maids, labourers. They were called Nordestinos and were the builders of the new Sao Paulo.

But others with less basic aims were attracted to this growing city; they were the criminals whose objective was not to contribute with their labour but as parasites feeding off those that did, whether skilfully or violently as the accelerating growth stretched the infrastructure to breaking point.

The British talk about the weather, the Chinese about food, the French about politics and the Italians about family, and the Paulistas talked about crime – crime that overlapped the normalcy of a community and entered into the mainstream as a virus that cannot be ignored for, as Sao Paulo grew, it grew alongside daily acts of violence of every type and in every locality. The Americans I worked with would relate in amazed tones, stories of street shoot-outs they had witnessed from their safely guarded houses; my Brazilian colleagues would talk about the frequent humiliations they suffered from a corrupt police force or of burglaries of their unprotected houses. One had inadvertently cut in on a police car on a main highway and had been pulled over and made to stand by the roadside to be questioned. Every answer, whether ‘yes’ or ‘no’ had earned him a blow about the head – on and on – in full public view. The police were the law and the law was decided by the police.

Such was their corruption at that time that they viewed the criminal class as their rivals and a group of police called themselves, or were called, the death squad,  (esquadrao de morte). Every night they would track down criminals or perceived criminals to gun them down, leaving their bodies where they lay to move on to more killings in their nightly orgy of assassinations.

One of their leaders was the brother of Nelson Brasilio who worked as a clerk at the Chrysler factory and spoke despairingly and dispassionately about his fallen brother. I liked Nelson and with others was baffled  by their Jekyll and Hyde disparity.

The Military dictatorship that had taken over in a coup eight years previously, with their best intentions of reform now mired in corruption and violence, was forced to govern by fear and, either accepted or could not change, the chaos unleashed in Brazil’s main city. It was said, protected or unprotected by private guards, one could never escape a brush with lawlessness during these fearful years.

Chrysler, the company I worked for, paid an annual levy to the Chief of Police’s ‘orphan fund’ and I had escaped each time when stopped by policemen. It had been sufficient to show the identity card issued to every Chrysler manager. Even the most hardened patrol-man would not risk the consequences of frisking anyone with such cover. But my time was to come and it came one quiet Saturday morning as I parked my car on the Rua 13 de Maio close to the Sears departmental store when going to buy Ursula’s birthday present. As I was about to get out of the car on the side away from the pavement a man of about 25 years of age, a mulatto, pulled open the door and told me to move over to the centre of bench type front seat and keep quiet. Outraged, I asked him what the hell he was doing and made to get out of the car; the man’s response was to ease a gun out of an inside pocket point it directly at my chest, repeating what he had said before and adding he would fire the gun if there was any resistance. For a split second I thought of resisting by grabbing the gun and turning it before the man could carry out his threat. Yes or no? Then have a go; it was a fifty fifty chance. But fortunately ruled out the active option and moved over as directed with my assailant moving in beside me, demanding the car keys as he did so. Keeping the gun aimed all the time, he leaned over to open the far door to admit a second man who had been covering his partner ready to gun down their victim if I had retaliated.

The second gunman got into the car and it moved off with me sitting between the two assailants. The driver was not happy and continued to mutter threats while the man on the right ordered me to take everything out of my pockets. There were 400 cruzeiros intended for the present, a pipe, a receipt for dry cleaning trousers and more importantly identification documents. Keeping alert yet passive I talked to the one on my right getting on to his wavelength as the objects were produced. The one on my left asked if I was a ‘gringo,’ and I didn’t want them mistaking me for an American who are highly unpopular in Brazil and sometimes taken for ransoms. ‘nao, nao. Inglez – Inglez;’  scarcely restrained myself from tapping my chest in a Latinised fashion. Getting more confident I asked the man with my money to return enough for my bus fare to test if they were only interested in the car and intended to leave me somewhere unharmed. When he gave back 1.5 cruzeiros , emboldened, I asked for the pipe and the dry-cleaning receipt which were also returned. There followed a request for the documents but this was refused.  The driver was getting irritated with the conversation and the requests and so I decided to keep quiet as they drove through Sao Paulo in the direction of Braz and Mooca.

It was tantalising when they stopped at traffic lights to see people pass within a few yards of the car and I not being able to call out for help. After half an hour with the silence onerous for the situation I spoke out. ‘Look, you have my car, my money and my documents, why don’t you just leave me anywhere so I can get back home?’ Without a word the driver carried on for some minutes and then at a lonely spot just before the Radial Leste he stopped. Still not knowing if they would let me go alive I watched the man on my right get out and motioned for me to do likewise. Before he did so the driver warned, ‘if you shout or speak to anyone we will shoot you from the car.’ I thought then they would let me go and got out of the car. The other one got back and I watched as the car disappeared in the direction of Penha.

There was a nearby Pronto Seguro (First Aid Post) and I told my story to a lot of incredulous people waiting there, one of whom phoned the police. They kept me talking with their questions until a police radio patrol car arrived about half an hour later. They took me to the 5th DP Degrau near the Rua Tamandure and there, after making a declaration and signing it I was taken to an office where a policeman sat who seemed familiar. How could I know this man? The policeman read the declaration. ‘So, you work at Chrysler? My brother works there too.’  Then I understood the similarity between the two brothers except for a detail; Nelson’s eyes were bright and friendly, this man had eyes that were dead. It was awful to see them. ‘You will also have to go to the car theft section at Rua Brigadeiro Tobias,’ he said. Forgetting the 1.5 cruzeiros my kidnapper has given me from my own money, I said  ‘I have no money.’ He fished into a pocket and passed over the desk a 5 cruzeiro note.

28 October 1972