RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- A wave of kidnappings has hit Rio de Janeiro, turning one of the world's crime capitals into an even more dangerous city, especially if you can afford to pay multimillion-dollar ransoms.
Police say there have been more than two dozen kidnappings this year, and news reports put the figure at nearly twice that number. In the past decade, the city averaged only a few abductions a year.
"There is no question that kidnapping is on the rise in Rio," said Detective Elson Campello, one of four directors of the anti-kidnapping squad in Rio, already the city with the world's fourth-highest homicide rate.
In Rio, where crime feeds on the disparity between the mansion-owning rich and the shanty-dwelling poor, most of the abducted have been wealthy businessmen.
The most well-known was rock concert impresario Roberto Medina, who was leaving his office when 10 armed men, claiming to be police, forced him into a car in June. He was released weeks later after his family reportedly paid between $2.5 million and $5 million.
Most of the kidnappers are veteran criminals.
"Some arrested kidnappers told us they'd been robbing banks until recently, when the crime became harder and less profitable due to beefed-up bank security," Detective Campello said. "Other kidnappers are drug traffickers who use the money to finance narcotics purchases."
In March, government economic austerity measures put an 18-month freeze on most bank and investment accounts, a move that took 80 percent ($100 billion) of the country's currency out of circulation.
As a result, money for any kind of business venture has become scarce. This is one reason police believe that drug traffickers are turning to kidnapping.
Police claim that drug kingpins are planning the abductions from prisons, using lawyers to carry instructions to cohorts on the outside. The Brazilian Bar Association recently voted to suspend three Rio lawyers suspected of acting as go-betweens for imprisoned drug ring leaders.
Some kidnappers also counted on the help of police officers. Rogerio Monteiro, press secretary for Rio de Janeiro state Gov. Wellington Moreira Franco, said that, in the last three years, 1,200 Rio policemen suspected or found guilty of criminal activities -- including kidnapping -- have been dismissed from the force.
Mr. Monteiro said that five policemen on the anti-kidnapping squad were arrested in May for trying to extort money from the boyfriend of a woman they held hostage.
"Law enforcement authorities know the police are involved in organized criminal activities, and that includes the recent wave of Rio kidnappings," said former Rio Civil Police Chief Nilo Batista.
"That's because this kind of crime requires special technical skills which the police possess."
Rio police boast that since the Medina abduction they have cracked down, arresting numerous kidnapping suspects. In the process, they have killed others. In August, eight policemen gunned down Mauro Luis de Oliveira, an escaped convict who reputedly masterminded the Medina abduction.
Police said that in searching the convict's car, they found plans to kidnap President Fernando Collor de Mello's two young sons.
The crackdown, however, has not caused the number of kidnappings to decrease. Nor have new laws providing longer prison terms for convicted kidnappers been passed. And many here regard the government's threat to confiscate the property of suspected kidnappers as an empty one.
Law enforcement authorities remain baffled as to why the kidnapping wave has been mostly confined to Rio. In Sao Paulo, homicide chief Fernando Costa said it hasn't hit Brazil's largest city because "in Sao Paulo, the wealthy protect themselves and their riches far more than in Rio, whose residents have a more open, carefree attitude, which makes them more vulnerable."
Since two major 1989 Sao Paulo kidnappings, the city's elite have been beefing up precautions, such as hiring more bodyguards. And hundreds of the city's businessmen are enrolled in kidnapping-protection courses offered by a burgeoning number of security agencies. Such courses -- in everything from martial arts and the use of handguns to automobile escapes -- have not caught on in Rio.
The newest twist in Rio kidnapping is that law enforcement officials have begun to investigate the families of those who pay ransom. Why? With a government-imposed freeze on most bank and investment accounts that makes large-scale withdrawals impossible, many people paying ransom are assumed to have secret sources of funds.