Fear and loathing in Sao Paulo: citizens driving armoured cars in Brazil’s richest city

How do you spot an armoured car in Sao Paulo? Check out the distorted reflection from the windows. The toughened glass they use to protect the car from bullets is slightly wavy, and the glass has a thick black border. Also, look at how they sit a bit lower to the ground, and how the tyres have a plastic sheen rather than the matte finish of rubber.

When you know how to spot an armoured citizen’s car (um carro blindado) you’ll begin to see them everywhere. Sao Paulo residents love their armoured cars.

A single shot fired at the driver of a “carro blindado” or armoured car, in Sao Paulo.

But is Sao Paulo really that dangerous? And what happens when you get out of the car? You can’t wear an armoured vest for the rest of your life, so armoured cars are only really useful when you’re waiting at traffic lights.

It’s not exactly cheap to make a car blindado, either. Depending on the size of the vehicle it runs from 50,000 reais (£15,000 or $25,000) to 80,000 reais (£25,000 or $40,000) to reinforce the suspension, put armor-plating in the engine and door-panels, replace the glass with a toughened resin and change the tyres for run-flats.

The car has a shorter life-span carrying its extra shell, and depreciates quicker than a normal car. Engines are constantly strained and the chassis buckles under the extra weight. Armoured cars are good for scrap in a few years.

Totally-destroyed armoured car, although the glass never smashed through.

And probably a total waste of money, and for why I’ll give you an example. My Paulista friend told me a story about his friend that drove an armoured car around Sao Paulo. At the traffic lights a ladrão approached his friend and pointed a gun at the glass. He demanded his watch.

Now, the friend was in an armoured car, so the bullet wouldn’t go through the glass. But the friend remembered that replacing the bullet-proof glass would cost 5,000 reais, and his watch only cost 2,000 reais.

So the friend cracked open the window and handed over his watch, saving himself 3,000 reais in the process…

The perception of security is often used by car-manufacturers to sell expensive cars. SUVs like Humvees and Range-rovers (military vehicles) in the US and Europe offer a kind of sanctuary, where the outside world can’t get to you. As a result you feel safe, even though you can’t live in your car forever.

In Brazil, crime is a serious problem. But armouring a car still seems like overkill. I’m not sure it really offers either security or safety. If they want you, they will follow you and either force you from the vehicle or wait until you get out.

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