The Gang of Blondes – Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover


Looks can be deceiving and more than one person has fallen victim to becoming complacent because a person they were dealing with turned out to be more dangerous than they initially appeared. A great example of this is the “Gang of Blondes” (Gangue das Loiras) a female kidnapping ring that was believed to be responsible for at least 54 kidnappings between 2009 and 2012 in Sao Paulo and Rio di Janeiro, Brazil. The gang typically targeted middle class women in shopping mall and supermarket parking lots, frequently taking them at gunpoint as they attempted to get in their cars. Two members of the gang would then hold the victim hostage while other members used her credit cards and ATM card, making as many purchases as possible. There are reports that the gang conducted quick, impromptu surveillance on their victims to assess their wealth prior to carrying out the express kidnapping.

While the Gang of Blondes was ultimately caught by police they were successful over at least a three-year period and possibly longer as there reportedly initially began carrying out condominium burglaries before moving on to express kidnapping. Much of their success was undoubtedly their ability to blend into the environment looking like the people they were victimizing and also not looking like the stereotypical criminal or kidnapper. This benign appearance undoubtedly gave them cover to carry out their pre-operational surveillance and allowed them to approach their victims closely in mall parking lots without causing any alarm.

While this group targeted women this strategy is equally, perhaps in some ways more effective if employed against men. Men are even less likely to perceive women as a physical threat and the “honey trap” aspect can further entice them to lower their guard.

The take-away from this is that we need to be careful about making immediate assumptions about whether someone is a threat or not based solely on appearance or gender. We should look more at the person’s behavior and whether it seems incongruous with the environment or setting we are in. This is particularly true at critical times when situational awareness should be heightened such as arrivals and departures. Clearly getting into your car in a parking lot – even in broad daylight – is one of those times. At home or abroad deception is a tool that criminals use to prey on victims and we shouldn’t allow stereotypes or assumptions lull us into complacency.

Hotel and Restaurant Takeovers

Following up on the miracle fishing kidnapping post its a good opportunity to discuss other situations where victims are seized in masse as many of the same issues exist.  These are also crimes that, like miracle fishing are circumstances where funadamental security measures may be of limited use.

For this reason we’ll look at different examples of this from hotel takeovers in Lagos, Nigeria to recent restaurant takeovers in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  

Recently there have been a rash of restaurant takeovers and armed robberies in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  The phenomenon is called arrastao – Portuguese for “trawling” – and while it has been going on for several years but has recently increased in frequency.  The arrastao gangs – usually composed of four to ten men – select a target based on the ease of entry and exits and then descend at a peak hour when the establishment is full of diners.  They move in quickly, secure the restaurant and rob the patrons and employees at gunpoint taking anything of value that they can get – usually cash, jewelry and electronic items.  The robbery is usually over within minutes and the gang withdraws as quickly as they have arrived.

Lagos, Nigeria has experienced a similar – and perhaps more violent – pattern of hotel takeovers.  These incidents while more common around 2007-2009 are still occurring – at least as recently as 2011 when the Imperial Hotel in Lagos was invaded and guests, including a prominent Nigerian actress were robbed at gunpoint.  While many of the hotels that were robbed were guesthouses and small budget hotels, one popular brand hotel was also taken over on Ikoyi island in Lagos.  In some of these Nigerian cases the robbery gangs have actually gone door-to-door in the hotels robbing guests in their rooms.

Incidents like the Mumbai attacks – where the intent was to kill as many people as possible and the temporary assault on an upscale Rio de Janeiro hotel by rival gangs  are a little bit different but some of the fundamental precautions are the same.  In hotel takeover situations once you become of aware of the situation you have basically two options:(1) get out quickly without being noticed or (2) shelter-in-place.  If you are in a restaurant that is taken over you will likely have limited to no option to shelter in place (unless you are in or near the restroom) and very likely no opportunity to escape as the attack will be planned out well and the perpetrators will likely have secured all the exits.  Fortunately these are usually economically motivated crimes and if you surrender your valuables the criminals will likely take what they can get and want to leave as quickly as possible.

Shelter in place for a situation like a hotel takeover will be the same as for an active shooter situation.  You will want to seek both cover (protection from gunfire, etc.) and concealment (protection from observation).  An in depth discussion of possible individual actions to an active shooter incident is beyond the scope of this post but will be addressed in future.

The bottom line is that like miracle fishing these types of events are difficult to counter using many of the fundamental individual protective measures.  The best defense is to know the local patterns and trends, the profiles of establishments that are being attacked and avoid being there.  Awareness will still be a key component and if all else fails may help you at least recognize the danger more rapidly.