RIO DE JANEIRO — Rio de Janeiro's over-the-top Carnival that opened Friday is the highlight of the year for many local residents — including the city's talented pickpockets, for whom the five days of beer-fueled street parties is an annual boon.
With the first of Rio's nearly 500 "bloco" street parties in full swing, revelers are drawing on a wealth of tricks and hard-earned knowledge from past years to keep the crime at bay.
Some use money belts or secret pockets inside ornate costumes. Others stash cash inside tennis shoes and carry ancient cellphones. Clever revelers are going to extremes to confound the nimble-fingered thieves working the crowds.
A picked pocket can spell the end of the fun and an hours-long wait at one of Rio's sluggish police stations to make a report, with nearly no hope of ever getting the stolen goods back. Last year, local television stations ran images of lines of robbed revelers snaking out of police stations, waiting to file complaints after being fleeced at one of the street parties, some of which can attract upward of 1 million people.
Rio state's ISP statistics agency doesn't break out crimes specifically committed during Carnival days in its monthly reports, but reports of pickpocketing routinely increase by around 30 percent during whichever month Carnival falls.
At a street party called "Popcorn and Soda" in Rio's middle class Tijuca neighborhood on Friday, Rafael Henrique Victorio was sporting what he thought of as a pickpocket-proof costume, a maroon mumu worthy of the likes of Zsa Zsa Gabor.
"If someone wants to get their hands in my pockets they're going to have to get around all this material first," said Victorio, a lawyer whose crowning glory was his XXL black curly wig dolled up with plastic flowers.
Friends Isis Jatoba and Luiza Borges were both debuting new money belts bought specially for Carnival to protect their beer and water money, bus passes, keys and the old cellphones they only drag out for the mass parties so their new ones don't get nicked.
"It keeps my hands free and the few things that I really need safe," said 24-year-old Borges, lifting her polka dotted Minnie Mouse T-shirt to reveal a soggy-looking beige money belt. "The only problem is that it's so hot out, the belt and everything in it gets super sweaty. I have to wrap my cellphone in a plastic bag to keep it working."
Jatoba, a 28-year-old schoolteacher kitted out as Wonder Woman, said she's on high alert despite never having been robbed during Carnival.
"But I had a friend come here from out of town and she was robbed twice during the same Carnival," said Jatoba, in itsy-bitsy star-spangled poofy skirt and superhero headband. "Nobody deserves that."