RIO DE JANEIRO — A night out on the town turned into a nightmare after an American woman was gang raped and beaten aboard a public transport van while her French boyfriend was handcuffed, hit with a crowbar and forced to watch the attacks, police said.
The incidents raise new questions about security in Rio, which has won kudos for its crackdown on once-endemic drug violence in preparation for hosting next year’s football World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic games. The city also will be playing host to World Youth Day, a Roman Catholic pilgrimage that will be attended by Pope Francis and is expected to draw some 2 million people in late July.
Three men aged 20 to 22 have been taken into custody in connection to the crime, which took place over six hours starting shortly after midnight Saturday, police said. The suspects have been accused of at least one similar attack, with a young Brazilian woman having come forward to say that she too was raped by the same men in the van on March 23, police said.
“The victims described everything in great detail, mostly the sexual violence,” police officer Rodrigo Brant told the Globo TV network. “Just how they described the facts was shocking — the violence and brutality. It surprised even us, who work in security and are used to hearing such things.”
The attack drew comparisons with the fatal December beating and gang rape of a young woman on a New Delhi bus in which six men beset a 23-year-old university student and male friend after they boarded a private bus. That attack touched off a wave of protests across India demanding stronger protection for women. Officials there say tourism has dropped in the country following the attacks.
On Tuesday, Brazilian police were quick to emphasize to reporters the rarity of Saturday’s attack.
“These type of crimes committed against foreign tourists are very uncommon,” said Alexandre Braga, the police officer leading the investigation.
Officials from the local Olympic and World Cup organizing committees didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment about how the attack might affect their security precautions.
Braga said the two foreigners, who were in Brazil as students, took a public transport van similar to those often used as a faster alternative to the city’s bus fleet. The pair were heading from Rio’s Copacabana beach neighborhood to the nightlife hot spot of Lapa in downtown Rio.
A few minutes into the ride, the suspects forced the other passengers to get out of the van and then raped the female tourist inside the moving vehicle, Braga said. The woman was also beaten across the face, and the man was handcuffed and beaten, at one point with a metal crowbar.
The three suspects took turns behind the wheel, driving the van to Rio’s sister city of Niteroi where they went on a spending spree with the foreigners’ credit cards.
Once they hit the limit on both cards, spending around $500 at gas stations and convenience stores, the suspects drove the pair back to Rio, where the foreigners were staying, and forced the woman to fetch another credit card, Braga said.
Although she was alone, she didn’t call the police or alert anyone, Braga said, “because the young man was still under the suspects’ control and she feared something even worse might happen to him.”
The two were ultimately dumped by the side of a highway near the city of Itaborai, some 50 kilometers from Rio. After they managed to make it to an unidentified country’s consulate, officials took the two to the special police delegation that specializes in crimes against foreigners. The young woman has returned to the U.S., while the man remains in Rio to help with the investigations, Braga said.
“The victims recognized the three without a shadow of a doubt,” Braga said.
The Brazilian woman who said she had also been raped by the suspects last month recognized media images of the alleged attackers and contacted police. Another foreigner has said she’d been robbed by one of the three suspects, police said.
Investigators are reviewing police databases to determine whether the three might have been involved in other crimes.
Two of the suspects have confessed to Saturday’s attack, while the third denies any responsibility, Braga said.
“They do not show any repentance,” he said. “They are quite indifferent, cold.”
The suspects rented the van, which seats about a dozen people and has dark tinted windows, from the vehicle’s owner, who police say is not suspected of any involvement in the crime. Though they apparently had authorization to transport passengers in Niteroi and neighboring Sao Goncalo, the suspects were not allowed to operate the van in Rio, Braga said.
“It appears they worked in transportation and sometimes engaged in crimes,” said Braga.
Many in Rio know of such van services for their precarious safety conditions and reckless driving, as well as their links to organized crime. Some vans are linked to militias largely composed of former police and firemen that control large swaths of the city’s slums and run clandestine transportation and other services. In general, tourists avoid the vans and opt for regular buses or taxis.
Foreigners are more often the targets of muggings and petty crime in Rio, with assaults a particular problem on public transit. Last year, a woman was raped on a moving bus in broad daylight in a widely publicized case, and the Rio subway has special women-only cars to help prevent such attacks.
More than 5,300 cases of sexual assault were reported in Brazil between January and June 2012, according to the country’s Health Ministry.