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Associated Press
An American woman was gang raped aboard a public transport van like this one in a beach neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro early Sunday. Her French boyfriend was shackled and beaten.

Rape, kidnap of tourists raise safety fears in Rio de Janeiro

– A night on the town turned into a six-hour-long nightmare after an American woman was gang raped and beaten aboard a public transit van while her handcuffed French boyfriend looked on helplessly, in an incident that’s shocked this resort city as it gears up to host next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

The police response to the attack was swift: The three alleged perpetrators, aged 20 to 22, have all been taken into custody, and investigators are combing databases to determine whether the men might have been behind any other crimes.

Waves of tourists expected to flood the city during the upcoming double-header of mega-events. About 2 million people are also expected to flock to the city in late July for World Youth Day, a Roman Catholic pilgrimage that Pope Francis is scheduled to attend.

Safety has improved at least in the city’s tourist-friendly, seaside South Zone neighborhoods. Foreigners and moneyed local residents who even three or four years ago would have hesitated to hail a taxi in the street or walk around after dark now do both without thinking twice.

“No one expects to be attacked in Disneyland, handcuffed and roughed up,” Globo newspaper quoted Alfredo Lopes, the head of an association representing Brazil’s hotel sector. “Copacabana is our Disneyland.”

Yet it was in that very beachfront neighborhood, full of senior citizens in bikinis by day but seedier by night, that the two foreigners, both in their early 20s, hailed one of the fleet of public transit vans often used as a speedier alternative to buses.

A few minutes into their journey shortly after midnight Saturday, the van operators forced the other passengers off and inflicted on the two foreigners what Alexandre Braga, the police officer leading the investigation, has called a “party of evil.”

The three suspects took turns raping the woman and beating the man, whom they handcuffed and sometimes struck with a metal crowbar, Braga told a news conference Tuesday.

The suspects split up the driving, ending up in Rio’s sister city of Niteroi across Guanabara Bay, where they went on a spending spree with the foreigners’ credit cards.

About six hours after they were abducted, the two were dumped by the side of a highway near the city of Itaborai, about 50 kilometers from Rio.

“The victims recognized the three without a shadow of a doubt,” Braga said of the men’s mug shots.

He said the men appeared to work as legitimate van operators, with crime an occasional side venture.

Rio’s van services are widely reviled for their precarious safety conditions and reckless driving, as well as their links to organized crime. Some vans are run by militias largely composed of former police and firemen who 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.

Walter Maierovitch, Brazil’s former drug czar and an organized-crime expert, said that with crime down overall, one of the city’s main challenges will be making sure visitors remain vigilant and aware of basic safety precautions.

“There has been a lot of improvement in Rio, but there is still a lot more to be done in terms of security, mainly more preventive actions, alerting tourists both foreign and domestic of the precautions they should take, neighborhoods to avoid,” he said.

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