Sun, Feb 26, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Rio's Carnival a paradise for pickpockets, petty thieves

EASY PICKINGS The annual bash is known for its over-the-top festivities, but it's also the high point of the year for criminals looking to prey on naive tourists

AP , RIO DE JANEIERO, BRAZIL

The crush of tourists that each year flood into Rio for Carnival is seen as easy pickings by the city's purse-snatchers and pickpockets, who refer to the visitors as "filet mignon."

As the five-day, pre-Lent bash started on Friday, a group of more ambitious thieves fled into the crowds after taking four prized paintings -- a Picasso, Dali, Matisse and Monet -- from a Rio art museum in a brazen heist.

Carnival revelry usually involves large crowds of people packed together -- a perfect opportunity for pickpockets.

"When we catch them [the thieves] they always say, `but they're so easy, so easy,"' said Ricardo Andreiolo, chief of the city's tourist police.

On Friday evening, gunmen took advantage of a Carnival street parade to rob a museum during visiting hours in the Santa Teresa district, in the hills above the city.

As a samba band performed on the street outside, they stole Pablo Picasso's The Dance, Salvador Dali's The Two Balconies, Matisse's Luxemburg Garden and Claude Monet's Marine.

The paintings were considered the most valuable pieces at the Chacara do Ceu museum, but their exact value was not immediately available, said Thais Isel, a spokeswoman with Rio's Public Safety Secretariat.

The assailants reportedly used grenades to threaten security guards and people inside the museum. They forced the guards to shut down the museum's security cameras, then fled while taking advantage of the droves of people outside following the Carnival band.

Museum director Vera de Alencar said the robbery appeared to have been orchestrated by specialists, probably from international gangs, the country's official Agencia Brasil news service reported.

More common are the pickpockets in Carnival crowds.

"We were in the middle of the crowd with everyone all pressed together, and it was all over very quickly. It was very professional. All I felt was my wallet leaving my pocket," said Marcelo Jandre de Moura, 28, who came from Araruama, a city 130km east of Rio, to see the Rolling Stones' free concert on Copacabana beach last Saturday.

Rio's reputation for street crime is so bad that many tourists feel getting robbed is a rite of passage. A popular T-shirt here reads: "I left my heart in Rio, and my watch and my camera and my wallet."

Rio is among the world's most violent cities, with an annual homicide rate of around 50 per 100,000 inhabitants. But the violence rarely spills out of the shantytowns and into the tourist districts.

"Others cities offer up the whole city for tourists, we only offer the tourist corridor, which is heavily policed. In this area crime is no worse than in any other large city," said Rio de Janeiro Mayor Cesar Maia.

In recent years, state officials have beefed up police patrols, created a special tourist police department and deployed cameras along popular beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema, where much of the petty thievery takes place.

Last year, tourism officials started distributing fliers warning visitors not to flaunt their cameras and expensive watches, to stay off of dark streets and away from the beach at night.

State Tourism Secretary Sergio Ricardo Almeida says the city's reputation for street crime is undeserved.

"I think there's paranoia in the national press and that contaminates the foreign press," Almeida said. "When a tourists gets robbed in Madrid, that doesn't make the papers."

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