Surviving the Serra.

Position:International Pages - Brief Article

Truckers must foil hijackers to move cargo along Brazil's busiest and most dangerous roadway.

THE LOCALS CALL IT GAROA--A FINE DRIZZLE THAT SOAKS EVERYTHING. Hats, umbrellas--nothing stops it and, as he inspects a Trans Postes truck at the Brazilian trucking company's terminal just outside the city of Sao Paulo, the most dispatcher Antonio Carlos Silva can do to keep his eyes clear is swipe his ample forearm across his brow.

Despite the soaking spray, Silva and his driver, Paulo S. de Lima, are thoroughly reviewing the safety checklist before signing off on the vehicle. It is loaded for a short trip, a 45-mile jaunt down the Serra do Mar mountainside to the port of Santos. "We have to make sure about everything," Silva says. He, more than anyone, knows what this kind of weather could mean on this particular route. Traffic jams. Rock slides. Hijackers.

In a country where more than two-thirds of all cargo travels by truck and robberies are the norm, this road from South America's biggest city to its largest port is the worst of all and it's getting worse. According to cargo transport companies, the number of hijackings increased by a third to more than 1,700 in 1999, compared with 1998 when US$100 million worth of merchandise was stolen in the Sao Paulo area. Wilson de Avellar, manager of trucking company Sax, says, "Draw a circle of a 50-kilometer radius around Sao Paulo. That's where it all happens.

Slow-moving targets. Dispatcher Silva doesn't need to be reminded. Less than a year ago, arriving back in town with a load of paper rolls, the 47-year-old trucker was stuck in traffic on the city's Marginal expressway, one of the busiest and most congested in the city. "It was 8 o'clock on a Friday night in Sao Paulo," Silva says. "And it was raining."

The nearby Tiete River was merging into the far outside lane as the cars and trucks muddled slowly ahead. Trapped, Silva sat at the wheel of his rig "just wishing the traffic would move."

The only thing that moved was the steel barrel of a small revolver--to the side of his face. "This guy, he was the chief. He said if I didn't resist, then everything would be all right. All they wanted was the cargo," Silva recalls.

In a flash, three other thieves popped open the trailer, unloaded the paper and moved it to another smaller truck on a rocky side street perpendicular to the expressway. And just like that, the cargo disappeared into the favelas, or slums, that darken the cities of Brazil. "These...

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