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Carjackings On Upswing in Brazil

July 25, 1999

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ Alfonso Martins peers out at the intersection where Sonia Maria Leite was shot dead a week ago when she refused to give her car to a carjacker and wonders if a simple traffic violation could have prevented the tragedy.

``Running red lights can save lives,″ Martins, a 52-year-old grocery store owner, said early Sunday from his stool at a street corner bar.

Last week, after a sharp upswing in carjackings left three people dead and five wounded, city officials said motorists would no longer be fined for running red lights late at night.

Residents cheered in this city where a culture of aggressive driving can turn a simple spin around the block into a knuckle-whitening thrill ride.

But some wondered whether the directive might not be an invitation to even greater vehicular mayhem.

``I don’t know if letting people break one law is the way to solve people breaking another,″ said Glaucia Rocha, a resident of Tijuca _ a solidly middle-class neighborhood surrounded by hillside slums _ where most of the carjackings had occurred.

By midweek, transit officials seemed to back off somewhat, saying they had been misunderstood.

``We didn’t say you could run red lights,″ said the transit sub-secretary, Nacisio Sergio Moreira. ``We said that if between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. you come to a red light and feel threatened, you may proceed at 15 mph after stopping to see if anyone is coming.″

Justifying the decision’s wisdom he added, ``There has been no rise in the number of accidents.″

Though carjackings are not a new phenomenon in Brazil, they seem to have increased dramatically in recent weeks. Some analysts attribute the increase to rising unemployment due to the country’s recent financial troubles.

Dr. Silvio Provenzano, who heads the emergency room at Tijuca’s Andari Hospital, said he has seen a dramatic jump in the number of gunshot victims brought to the hospital.

Though it was too early to tell if the red-light rule change had decreased gunshot wounds, the number of car accident victims seemed to be stable, and probably would stay that way, Provenzano said.

``They are only legalizing something everybody already does. No one ever stopped for red lights in this city at night,″ Provenzano said.

For years, Rio residents have brazenly disobeyed red lights.

Only in recent months has the practice slightly decreased, with hidden cameras at strategic intersections enforcing a tough new transit law aimed at curtailing Brazil’s 50,000 annual road deaths.

Since last week’s shootings, the city has beefed up the police presence in Tijuca. Residents say they find it reassuring but wonder how long it will last.

``I think its great, but when they come here the crime moves elsewhere. And when they go to that place, the crime comes back here,″ said Martins.

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