The Brazilan city is already awash with petty crime
Thieves like "Pedro" are expecting a bumper time during the Olympics
It’s witching hour in Rio De Janeiro for Pedro. The sun has slipped below the horizon, emptying the beaches and filling the nearby streets.
Most are holidaymakers around here lazily meandering back to their hotels – prime targets for Pedro’s light fingers and scant morals.
“More or less around 5 p.m. when there’s more movement, it’s easier to steal … one, two … sometimes three, even more,” he says, when we catch up with him in his tiny home in one of the city’s infamous “favela” slums.
Pedro is not his real name but his experiences are part of the reality holidaymakers will face here in Rio de Janeiro during the Olympics. Street crime is already rampant and is likely to get worse from August 5.
“It’s going to be good,” he laughs to himself. “At the same time that you’ll have a lot of tourists, you’ll have a lot of thieves as well,” he adds.
End of month bonanza
Pedro looks out for the latest models – an iPhone 6 guarantees him about half its sale price. And a good day’s work? “Around five phones. That is a good day. At the end of the month, around the time people get paid, that’s when people buy and are more careless with what they have,” he says.
He prefers to work with other thieves; one can bump into their victim, while the other steals. He shows the technique on my phone and pocket, one hand deftly pushing the phone up out of the pocket, while the other grabs it from the pocket’s top. “You see someone sleeping with the phone in their hands, they always lose,” he says.
Jewelry pays better but runs more risk of the police being informed, he says. People rarely report a stolen phone.
“If you come from abroad, you know that you won’t stay for long. When it is jewelry, watches, those things… they might go to the police station. But when it’s just a phone, many don’t even go to the police, they get on the ship, on the plane and they leave.”
It is rare, he says, that he uses a weapon to threaten his victims, but says that when one is needed, he has to hire it from a local crime boss, and then return it on pain of death.
He doesn’t recall his first phone theft, and says it all happened out of poverty and need. “I started out of necessity. When I lived with my mother, we were 10 brothers. So when I went out onto the street and I would see something, I would always take it.”
I ask him if he cares about ruining people’s vacations, or stealing their most precious memories or messages.
“I don’t really think about that because if I did … no one would do it,” he says. “But when it’s time to go out to steal, you always think that these are people who have more money than those who are here, [in the favela].”
Central Rio is awash with potential thieves – CCTV cameras are trying to sweep the city’s streets and feed the grainy world into a command center the Brazilian police opened for the 2014 World Cup.
Tourists are encouraged to dial 911, or 112 – whatever their local home emergency number is – and they will be transferred to the call center to report the crime.
But the trade in phones is so common and advanced that Pedro is not worried. He explains how, a mere 30 minutes after the theft, he is able to wipe the phone. He shows us a local electronics market, brimming with sellers hawking Samsungs or iPhones on the street corner, where he says he can have any phone reset and wiped in minutes. Indeed, when we visited that market, one trader claimed he could reset my phone without needing the password or Apple ID.
Pedro says he pays $10 for this service and then lets various other resellers bargain to offer him the best price.
“When you steal one, you already have a place to take it,” he says.
But he offers a little advice about how not to become his victim: keep an eye on your phone when you answer it in the street and always be alert when you are using it. Keep it in your front pocket. Don’t “sleepwalk” with it.
He says he prefers to approach victims from behind, as from the front there’s a risk he gets tripped up.
Bear that in mind this August if you’re in Rio.