Brazil Bus Rape Gang On Trial- by Mac Margolis
For Fernanda and Sérgio—let's just call them that—the evening of March 23 started like many other Saturdays in Rio de Janeiro: a time to kick back, forget work and hit the town. Their destination was Bar do Mofo, a popular nightclub in Lapa, a Bohemian neighborhood in a semi-renovated downtown district that has been a showpiece for the "new" Rio's up and coming tourist circuit. They never made it.
For the two friends—Fernanda, aged 22, and Sergio, 22—the outing turned into the longest night of their lives and one that Cariocas, as Rio natives call themselves, are unlikely to forget anytime soon. Surprised by a criminal band operating a pirate commuter van, they and several other passengers were kidnapped, robbed and repeatedly threatened. One by one, the victims were released, leaving only Fernanda and Sergio captive as the van made its way from Copacabana to downtown.
A few minutes later, Sergio too was forced out at the bus station and ordered to walk away.Fernanda remained, and for the next two hours, she says, she was pummeled, threatened, verbally abused and repeatedly raped by the gang of three. "They beat me and threatened me over and over, telling me they were going to set fire to the van with me inside," Fernanda recalled this week, speaking outside the tenth-floor courtroom, as she waited to be called to identify her alleged attackers. "All the while they kept cursing me and talking filth. It's all very clear in my mind. It was a nightmare."
In many ways, it's not over yet. Yes, the suspects are behind bars and Fernanda is determined to put the horrors of that night behind her. "I don't believe we survive to suffer. I'm not going let three bandits ruin my life," she said at the arraignment this week. But the end of the assault was the beginning of another kind of torment, and one which all the hype over the new Brazil can neither soothe or explain away.
For Fernanda, what came next—the supercilious cops, the shabby forensics, the investigators who sat on her case for weeks—only deepened her distress. Worse, she soon realized that her case might have come to nothing at all had it not been for an identical attack a week later. Nearly identical, that is. The victim this time was a young American tourist, who also was kidnapped, beaten and repeatedly raped by the same gang in a minivan. In contrast to Fernanda's case, her plight became an instant scandal, mobilizing the international press corps, Rio's top brass, and the political spin machine to contain the fallout from an ugly public debate.
More than adding insult to injury, these twin crimes and the chasm in the official response to each stand as a cautionary tale about a land still plagued by violence, by bandits and by bureaucrats, even as it claims a place on the global stage. All the more emblematic that these events took place in Rio, Brazil's flagship city, which is preening to host world class events such as next year's soccer World Cup and the 2016 summer Olympics.
Undoubtedly, Rio has much to boast about. The city is rising from decades of urban blight and street crime that turned swathes of Brazil's fairest city into war zones. Police have taken over the bandit hillsides, "pacifying" 33 separate slum or "favela" complexes that are home to half a million residents. Violent crime has plunged and homicides are at a 20 year low. One painful exception is sexual assault, which has spiked in Rio (up 23 percent last year) and nationwide, up 157 percent from 2009 to 2012.
With the city in the global spotlight, the police have stepped up. In 48 hours, Rio's investigative cops had cracked the case of the American rape victim, and by the next day, all three of the adult assailants were in custody. In a matter of weeks, a trial was underway and by July—astonishing efficiency in the sluggish Rio courts—a verdict was handed down. Wallace Aparecido Souza Silva, aged 21, Jonathan Foudakis de Souza (19), and Carlos Armando Costa dos Santos (21), were sentence to 49 years each for rape, robbery and assault. In a single news cycle, Brazil's city of record had converted an international scandal into a setpiece of police intelligence and justice.
Fernanda was unimpressed. "I reported my crime a week before the American tourist was attacked, but nothing happened," she said. Small and quiet, with dark eyes and jet black hair, she tells her tale with a firmness that belies her ordeal. Presiding judge Rose Marie Pimentel Martins had closed the courtroom to the public to shield the victim. But Fernanda spoke freely outside the chambers to The Daily Beast. As she waited for the session to begin, in which she would be called to identify her attackers, she quickly recounted the events of that night and how her case has since coiled its way through from the police blotter through the serpentine Brazilian justice system.
"I reported my crime a week before the American tourist was attacked, but nothing happened."
The first scandal was that the gang operating the van clearly had practiced their criminal routine before. It was around 11 p.m. when she and her friend flagged down the dark green minivan, one of the many that ply the streets, competing for fares with the chronically overcrowded city buses. Sergio, a guide at a Copacabna youth hostel, was on his way to Lapa to meet a group of foreign guests for a night of samba and dancing. Fernanda decided to come along. "I never take vans, because they are not always reliable," she said. "But we were late."
Boarding in Copacabana, they noticed nothing unusual at first. A few minutes later, one of the bandits announced the assault. "Please don't hurt me," one of the passengers blurted out. "I am a working man. I have a family to feed." Though neither Fernanda or Sergio suspected it at the time, this was a scripted skit, with one of the thieves posing as a panicked victim. The ruse worked and soon everyone was emptying their pockets and turning over their mobile telephones.
Instructing the driver to keep moving, the lead bandit ordered several stops to release passengers along the way. He showed no weapon but warned everyone to keep still, grasping a lump under his shirt that might have been a gun or a knife. As the van emptied, the farce abruptly ended. Fernanda and Sergio quickly realized that the two remaining "victims"—the driver and the ticket taker—were part of the gang and that armed robbery was the least of their worries.
"They told me they were going to Vila do João," says Fernanda, referring to a lowland slum north of downtown Rio. "They said I was their hostage and not to worry because nothing would happen to me." Sergio pleaded with his captors to take him instead, but was ordered out of the van at the bus terminal. "Keep walking and don't look back," he was told. Sergio quickly flagged a cab to pursue them but soon lost sight of the dark van in the dim street lights.
He spent the next several hours scouring the city, once pulling into a police station. "The duty officer was asleep," he says. He pleaded with another policeman to radio the description of the rogue van to alert passing patrol cars. "They said there was nothing they could do," Sergio recalls. Desperate, he drove to the crime-ridden Vila do João and went straight to the armed drug traffickers who run the favela after dark. "At least they did something, radioing other dope dealers but came up with nothing." Sergio realized he had been deliberately misled by the bandits, used to covering their tracks.
By then, Fernanda was far away. Her captors had sped across the seven-mile extension bridge to Niteroi, a city across the bay from Rio with more than one million inhabitants and plenty of favelas to get lost in. With the car still rolling, she says, the bandits took turns raping her. The youngest of the group, Froudakis, repeatedly smacked her in the face, alternating death threats with a stream of vulgarities.
It was 1 am when they abandoned Fernanda in downtown Niteroi. That's when the second assault began. Hailing a cab, she told the driver she had been attacked and he drove her to a hospital. There she was given painkillers, a morning-after pill, and a shot for Hepatitis B. "I was in shock and very nervous," she recalls.
By then her father had arrived, and they proceeded to Rio's special police division for crimes against women. When she arrived, however, the chief inspector wasn't on duty to sign her crime report. So she set out again in search of anti-HIV medication, driving to two other distant hospitals before circling back to the police station hours later.
By 4:30 at the morning she was at the forensics lab, where she hit another wall. There was no physician to examine her, "only a pathologist, who was busy performing autopsies," she says. So Fernanda and eight other assault victims waited. "The wait was so long that I went out to the car and slept. I was exhausted."
When the physician finally arrived, dawn had broken. Once again, Fernanda had to answer questions, repeating the night's events, detail by detail. "When she was ready to examine me she found the lab had no surgical gloves," Fernanda says. "She eventually pulled a pair out of her coat pocket. The conditions were appalling." It was 4 pm when Fernanda arrived at her father's home to shower and sleep.
For the next week, her nerves still shattered, Fernanda sat still, waiting for the phone to ring. But she heard nothing. The first break in her case came a week later, when she learned that another woman had been kidnapped, beaten and raped by a gang in a minivan, in circumstances almost identical to hers. On a tip, Fernanda went online and pulled up a picture of the American woman's assailants. "It was the same gang," she says. "I started to shake and had to sit down."
After a number of dead-end calls to the women's crime unit ("no one answered,") she rang the tourist police, where the cops were all over the latest case. She spoke to the lead detective, Alexandre Braga, who quickly saw the thread and sent a squad car to take a deposition.
Two weeks later, when Fernanda's story hit the press, the full force of the Rio police was on her case as well. Martha Rocha, chief of civil police, the cop's investigative branch, sent a helicopter to fetch her and took charge of the file. Heads rolled, including that of the chief inspector in Niteroi.
Rocha also fired the head of the forensics lab where Fernanda had waited for more than three hours to be examined. "The delay was unacceptable," Rocha told The Daily Beast at the time. "If a woman who suffers a sexual assault is made to wait, it's as if she were being victimized for a second time."
Despite official statistics showing an increase in sexual assaults in Rio, Rocha said the police have made progress in protecting women. "What we see is more people coming forward to report sexual crimes where once they kept silent," she says. "That is first and foremost an indication that people trust the police."
Though scalded by her brush with Rio's Kafkaesque police bureaucracy, Fernanda has only praise for Rocha. "She is an extremely competent and serious professional," she says.
But don't ask her about the new Brazil. "What's clear is the priority given to tourists," she says. "Brazil needs to care for its own," she adds, citing the lyrics of the national anthem, which hails Brazil as "the gentle mother" that nurtures its natives sons and daughters. "What kind of mother is this who treats her children this way?" she says.