An introduction to Brazilian Customs Police

Trip Start Mar 02, 2012
Trip End Dec 21, 2012

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Flag of Brazil  , State of Sao Paulo,
Monday, May 7, 2012

After some vigorous research it was decided that rather than having a look at the Brazilian side of the Iguazu falls ( which isn't nearly as good as the Argentinian side), we would catch the earlier bus to Sao Paolo in order to catch the early connection the next morning to our next destination Paraty (para-chee). So we get the 1430 bus, arriving 0600, then catching the 0800 arriving at 1400. A good 24 hours of bussing - and these aren't as luxurious as the absolutely ridiculously fancy Argentinian ones. Things seemed odd when we started loading the bus as people were carrying LOADS of luggage. We were beginning to think there won't be any space for our mere backpacks. Eventually, on the bags went, and to our Semi Cama seats 9 and 10 we went. A couple of hours into the journey, right after a toilet break, the oddest thing started. The odd looking fella from seat 5 starting going round the bus collecting which looked like, what the English would call, a whip, or passing of the hat. Unsurprisingly Charlotte and I were not approached for a donation to the hat and we started speculating on what this could be for. Initially I thought it could be that the guy is making odds on either a football game/which foreigner will be robbed first/after how many kilometres the bus would actually topple over given the speed at which it was taking bends. The guy seemed to collect what was quite a large wad of cash - the purpose of which was soon to unfold. Around 9pm that evening we had to pull into a weighing station where the Police search the bus. Charlotte then asked the bookmaker from seat number 5 what is going on. It seems that the whip was to give to the Police when they do this rather expected search - a bribe to look the other way. This seemed to work and after the bookmaker from seat number 5 had a couple of sweats we were on the road again. At this point I popped two "night nurses", firstly to get rid of the slight cold I was picking up, but also to act as a sleeping pill. For those who have had a night nurse, you will know it knocks you out, proper, for the night. Unbeknown to me, at exactly 0230 in the morning, we came to another toilet break stop. At 3am Charlotte woke me up saying loads of people seem to be getting off, not only to relieve their bladders as they are taking their backpacks with them. Dazed, confused and nightnursed, I tried to make sense of it. First thought was that seeing as we were nearer the destination, now might be the time when wandering hands start slipping into backpacks and thus the locals go and put it in the hold. I decided to check it out and went outside while Charlotte minded our backpack. The big doors to the luggage was open and some people started to unload their masses of luggage ( which tended to be large neat square bags). There was another bus next to ours, which also left Iguazu at a similar time, operated by another company. So I'm assuming some folks are just getting off here and there is no big deal. Then out of nowhere blasted two police vehicles into sight, coming to a screeching stop between the busses. Lights flashing, sirens blaring. Pretty much every single person outside the busses, excluding myself and maybe one bemused older Peruvian guy, started fleeing in all directions, trying to carry as much luggage with in their getaway attempt. It was pandemonium. People running everywhere and 3 coppers trying to catch them all. So now you have 3 guys trying to police around 30 others, scattered between two buses and the massive bus stop compound. So when the cops are at bus 1, people take some more luggage out of bus 2 and vice versa. Off course the bookie in seat 5 is long gone. Maybe 5 minutes later two cars arrive between the busses. When they notice the cops they try to get away but they end up blocking each others route! This is when it gets intense. The 3 cops whip out their pistols and it is something out of Cops. The 7 men between the 2 cars are forced to get out, hands on the bonnet type situation ( in the mean time the folks manage to salvage some more goods out of both bus 1 and 2). There was one cop that had an incredibly serious look about him, like Starsky in the new Starsky and Hutch. It was almost comical how seriously he took his job. To prevent any collateral damage as such I jump back into the bus, not wanting to be the victim of a stray bullet or as a bargaining chip for a would be smuggler. Seeing as these guys end up having nothing on them (they are obviously the guys picking up some of the goods) and without having done anything wrong, they are let go. Another 6 or so coppers arrive and I head back out to the action. It then seems a bunch of the people managed to get onto another parked bus with their goods and then the coppers chased after this bus ,only to return empty handed 10 minutes later. Right so now the situation looks under control. The vast majority of goods is gone somewhere, a bunch of folks are chilling inside the canteen at the bus stop, including our bookie from seat 5. At this point I manage to ask some questions to the cops and it seems the story is as follows. All these people have brought in goods from Paraguay ( you will recall that we watched the sunset on the river that edges 3 countries, Argentina, brazil and Paraguay), without declaring it at Brazilian customs, and paying the appropriate taxes. Paraguay it seems has basically no real government/police/authorities to enforce control over what comes in and out of the country. So goods are flown from China into Paraguay and then into Brazil via these bus mules. What we assumed to be drug smuggling at this stage ended up being undeclared (and probably fake) socks, polo shirts and barbie dolls. And all these coppers are Customs Police. At around 5am the luggage hold is closed and secured by Customs and they come on board to search our bags. As he is getting on, Starky's phone rings, to the tune of Dirty Harry! You couldn't make it up, it was like Clint Eastwood was there. Trying to keep the grin off my face they searched the top of the bus. The bus driver was then instructed to drive to the customs control point, where all the bags in the hold will be searched and confiscated. We all then got back on the bus, Of the 30 people that started the journey, only around 9 got back on the bus - the rest not wanting to be associated with their luggage full of contraband in the luggage hold! So we wave the others, who are just sitting around in the canteen like they were never on the bus, goodbye and head to the customs point. There we have to go get our bags out, show them the contents and get the all clear. Before we complete the journey to Sao Paolo I inspect the luggage hold, which was a joke - only around 10 bags remain, 2 of which is ours! So between what the customs police confiscated and what the bootleggers managed to make off with, only 8 other legit bags remain. One girl is also very upset as someone managed to make off with her bag of ( declared and taxed!) goods before Starsky arrived guns blazing. So we head into Sao Paolo, which is a monster of a city holding around 20million inhabitants - roughly 4 times the size of London. We've now obviously missed our 8am bus and to our disappointment the 12pm one is fully booked. They manage to get us on the 4pm bus without having to buy another ticket, which was great. So much for our plans to arrive nice and early to hit the beach! All said and done a very eventful day - cops, robbers, Starsky and the Bookie from seat number 5.
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