Living in São Paulo you quickly get used to the normalisation of crime, the threat of crime. Driving is a good place to illustrate this: the winding up of your car windows when you stop; the jumping of red lights after a certain time of night; the constant checking that your doors are locked. It became clear to me that preparing for crime, or its prevention, is the same thing as living with its threat; one way or another, it very quickly becomes a mundane part of your daily life. Everyone knows someone who has suffered some terrible experience.
São Paulo exists in a state of heightened paranoia that lends itself to massive gun ownership, distrust of the police, and armies of private security. Drive around any relatively wealthy area and you’ll find high walls ringed with barbed wire, doormen, security teams, and CCTV everywhere.
When you drive into the garage in the building where I lived, you would identify yourself at the bulletproof glass booth in which three or four of the seguranças – security guards – sit. These guys are lovely and do more than just security: they run the building, taking barbeque bookings, organising events, helping with shopping and storage.
However, carjacking in Morumbi does happen and they do do security.
Your stopped by thieves at a traffic light, one of which hops in the back with a gun trained on your head. When you approach your building, they crouch down low and tell you they’ll kill you if you do anything suspicious. So you wave nonchalantly at the glass booth and ghost inside. The thieves go from flat to flat stripping them of valuables, load up, and leave in the car in which they arrived, where you’ve been sitting patiently waiting with a gun trained on your head.
It’s a clever scam, if high-risk.
So, in our building there is a system to protect against it.
If you do happen to drive in with a couple of bad guys hidden in the back, you’re supposed to (calmly) park in a special bay which the security guys have designated as a signal to them that you’re in trouble. Once parked there, I don’t dare think what happens next. I never even bothered to find out which bay is designated as the signal. I lived more in fear of parking in it by accident and being forcefully ‘rescued’ by the seguranças, than I did of an actual carjacking.
One lunchtime at the British school where I worked, I tried to pop to the bank. The security guard stopped me. No one was allowed out.
Turned out, the bank had been robbed about half an hour earlier and the two crooks were hiding somewhere in the neighbourhood. This is a posh neighbourhood, with spacious houses, foreign cars and private security booths on most corners. Later, I discovered that the police only manage to catch one of the thieves. The other was shot dead by a student’s private bodyguard. He was waiting around outside the school and noticed someone suspicious, pursued him, realised who it was and killed him.
Shot him in the chest and head. A very professional job.
You’d think that there might have been some legal repercussions, shooting someone dead in the street.
No one cared; the bodyguard a hero.
Most Paulistanos shrugged it off, clicked their teeth and said:
‘Ah, menos um, ne?’
‘Oh well, that’s one less crook, am I right?’
The phrase is spoken with a shrug, with indifference, meaning the only good bandit is a dead bandit.
Bolsonaro had that message nailed on. His popularity in the election was based on a feeling that he would sort out crime. Bolsonaro made crime, undoubtedly a problem, into the problem.
My latest novel, Brazilian Psycho, is an occult history of the city of São Paulo from 2003 – 2019, told through the lens of real-life crimes. It reveals the dark heart at the centre of the Brazilian social-democrat resurgence and the fragility and corruption of the B.R.I.C economic miracle; it documents the rise and fall of the left-wing – and the rise of the populist right.
The questions at the heart of Brazilian Psycho are: how did it come to this? How did the country change over the sixteen years from Lula’s election to Bolsonaro’s? It’s a journey from the optimistic and progressive Brazil in the Lula years to a brutal right-wing regime, mirroring so much of the rest of the world.
Brazilian Psycho by Joe Thomas is out now in hardback by Arcadia.
Brazil, 1 January 2003: President Luis Inacio 'Lula' da Silva begins fifteen years of left-wing government. 1 January 2019: Jair Bolsonaro is inaugurated, a president of the populist right. How did it come to this? A blockbusting novel of our times, Brazilian Psycho introduces and completes Joe Thomas's acclaimed Sao Paulo quartet. Over sixteen years, a diverse cast of characters live through the unfolding social and political drama, setting in motion a whirlwind of plots and counterplots: the murder of a British school headmaster and the consequent cover-up; the chaos and score-settling of the PCC drug gang rebellion over the Mothers' Day weekend of 2006; a copycat serial killer; the secret international funding of nationwide anti-government protests; the bribes, kickbacks and shakedowns of the Mensalao and Lava Jato political corruption scandals, the biggest in Brazilian history. Brazilian Psycho weaves social crime fiction, historical fact, and personal experience to record the radical tale of one of the world's most fascinating, glamorous, corrupt, violent, and thrilling cities.