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Daring Rio Robbers Haunt Tourists

February 5, 1998

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ A train ride through Rio’s green hills to the famed Christ statue ended in terror for dozens of foreign exchange students, robbed at gunpoint in a brazen crime that struck the city’s No. 1 tourist attraction.

While Rio is no stranger to crime, the mass mugging also was a public-relations nightmare for this city as it struggles to shed a reputation for lawlessness.

``Violence can happen anywhere in the world. But this was of an extraordinary audacity,″ said Wilmar Garcia Barbosa, governor of the Rotary Club that brought the students to Brazil.

It began on a brilliant Wednesday afternoon. Some 90 passengers boarded the red cog railway for the ride up Corcovado Mountain, through lush Atlantic forest to the foot of the Christ statue overlooking the city.

Nearly all the riders were teen-agers in the Rotary Club’s exchange program. The students _ from such places as Scandinavia, Germany, Japan and the Philippines _ were in Brazil for a year of study. They had been in Rio on a mid-term ``vacation″ for exactly 24 hours.

The ride up was smooth, the view at the top breathtaking. But on the way back, the driver found the track blocked with rocks and the lid of a water tank.

``The engineer got off the train to remove the obstacle and was overpowered,″ said Paulo Viana, the assistant station master. ``That’s when they came on.″

They were six or seven men _ accounts vary _ and each carried a gun or a knife. They announced the stickup, first in Brazil’s native Portuguese, then in Spanish.

``At first I thought it was joke, but when I saw the guns I knew it was for real,″ said Leacordie Gendron of Le Mans, France. ``I was very afraid. A lot of people were crying.″

The gang began to go methodically through the two cars, taking cash, credit cards, jewelry, cameras, watches, passports and airline tickets.

``I was sitting there and they asked for my camera and I hesitated, so he took out a gun and pointed at my head,″ said Tara Cook, 18, an American from Moline, Illinois.

Erika Helgesson, of Wilsonville, Oregon, said some people tried to save their cash by sitting on it or dropping it down their pants. But the thieves soon caught on.

``They said if you try to hide your money we’ll kill everyone in the train, so we gave them everything we had,″ said Soren Bindesboll of Billund, Denmark. ``It seemed very professional.″

The robbers didn’t want just anything. They were choosy.

As quickly as it started, the first robbery in the railroad’s 113-year history was over. The thieves vanished in the woods, and the victims were taken to the Special Police Station for Tourists to file complaints and list their losses.

After that, it was time for damage control.

Rio Mayor Luiz Paulo Conde invited the victims to the City Palace on Thursday where he personally apologized. Then he invited everyone to lunch at a barbecue restaurant.

Rio’s secretary of tourism, Gerard Bourgeaisseau, promised to compensate the students for their lost possessions. ``That’s the least we can do,″ he said.

Lt. Col. Jose Luiz Sampaio of Rio’s state police said officers were combing the woods and the hillside slums nearby. From now on, he said, a police officer will be stationed in all trains.

``Our criminals are getting bolder and changing their modus operandi,″ he said. ``We’re trying to change with them.″

On Thursday, the number of passengers on the cog railway reportedly was off by 40 percent. Brazilian media predicted the incident would worsen Rio’s image as a violent city.

``Lesson from Rio de Janeiro,″ read a headline in one Rio newspaper. ``Postcard stained,″ read another.

But the Rotary Club isn’t changing plans to bring another group of 96 students to Rio next week _ for another visit to the Christ statue, club governor Barbosa said.

``We’ve never had problems like this,″ he said. ``The impact was more a scare than anything else.″

The victims also tried to take it in stride.

``I love Brazil,″ said Bindesboll, the Danish student. ``People like that shouldn’t spoil your stay.″

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