Ronnie Biggs and the South American Dream

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Ronnie Biggs posing on Copacabana beachRonnie Biggs: not the first criminal to wash up on
Brazil’s shores or don an England shirt

Ronnie Biggs, who has died aged 84, opens his autobiography with a cinematic description of his schoolboy self fleeing a local thug through the streets of London’s East End, only to be denied refuge in his own home by a tough-loving father. Slamming the door in Ron’s face, Biggs senior orders his son to turn and face his tormentor. Ron duly dispatches the bully with some fancy fist-work and learns a valuable life-lesson: never back down to anyone.

Biggs’s daring escape from Wandsworth Prison and his extended thumbing of a sun-burnt nose at British authorities suggested a lifelong commitment to the no-surrender principle. But in 2001, failing health and financial difficulties forced a chastened Ron to board a tabloid-chartered plane to Heathrow in exchange for an in-flight curry and the promise of an NHS-assisted retirement, sipping frothy pints of English ale on the Bermondsey waterfront. The reality was to prove more milky porridge.

Twenty years ago, I was invited to a party at Ron’s Santa Teresa mansion arranged to celebrate his 40th year on the run. By this time, pecuniary problems had reduced him to selling trademarked Ronnie Biggs memorabilia and would-be guests were expected to bankroll the bash. But the event was rained off and we were denied the chance to subsidize the louche lifestyle of a notorious felon. (A friend who ran into Biggs and his entourage in a lift in downtown Rio described them, pungently, as ‘men who looked like they’d spent too much time in the company of cheap prostitutes’). Ron would subsequently stage a lavish knees up for his 70th birthday attended by a rogues-gallery of former East End villains-turned-90’s-publishing-sensations, including former prize-fighter Roy “Pretty Boy” Shaw, once dubbed the most dangerous man in Briton’s penal system. “It’s romantic,” reflected invitee and sometime cleaver-wielding scourge of Chinese waiters, Dave Courtney. “I feel like I’m living a part of history”.

Ron’s place in history was assured by his role in the Great Train Robbery and his identification what might be termed the South American Dream: living it up in Rio on the lam. But Biggs was scarcely the first criminal to wash up on Brazil’s shores. The Portuguese colonization of Brazil was initiated by a pair of ex-lags turfed onto a north-eastern beach, in 1500, by the country’s Lusitanian discoverer, Pedro Álvares Cabral. (The convicts wept to see the sails of Cabral’s caravel disappear over the horizon before seeking consolation in the arms of their Amerindian hostesses). They were followed by a fugitive miscellany of ex-cons, semi-literate administrators, New Christians (forcibly-converted Jews), orphans, second-sons, donatories and aspiring slave-plantation owners.

But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the paradigm of flight to Brazil with piles of pilfered cash was created by no less a historical figure than the Portuguese Prince Regent and future Brazilian Emperor, Dom João VI. In November 1807, facing the threat of a double invasion by warring French and British forces, Dom João belatedly threw in his lot in with the Brits, misappropriated the entire contents of the Portuguese treasury and decamped to Rio on a British-escorted gunship. After fifteen idle years in the tropics, indulging his tastes for butter-basted chicken and al fresco hand-jobs, the Emperor completed an unprecedented double, scouring the coffers of the recently-created Bank of Brazil (his original misbegotten funds having expired almost as quickly as Ron’s) and sheepishly returning to Portugal.

Brazil’s reputation as a land of easy-living, beyond the laws of God or man, dates back as far as the century of its European discovery, when the maxim “there’s no sin beneath the Equator” entered the Portuguese vernacular. Since then, a cartoonish fantasy has taken root of Brazil as a highly sexually-charged netherworld where the normal rules of human behaviour are magically suspended and where actions bear only the remotest relation to consequences, thanks in part to a culture of pervasive impunity. It’s a fantasy in which Brazilians themselves are heavily invested.

Ronnie Biggs’s was taken to heart by Cariocas – Rio’s native residents – as a pink-faced version of their own folkloric, loveable-rogue figure, the malandro, and duly accorded the moniker, “thief of the century”. But it’s an epithet that might more appropriately be applied to any number of Brazil’s own kleptomaniac political and civil servant classes. Even allowing for inflation, the train robbers’ £2.5 million pound haul represents a mere mini-cooper of a job compared to the juggernauts of cash siphoned annually from Brazil’s public coffers by its governing classes (an estimated R$45 billion). The ruling Workers’ Party is currently reeling from the shock of seeing key figures from former President Lula’s administration banged up for rerouting R$141 million of illegal public loans into party slush funds. (Lula responded to the scandal with typically paradoxical expressions of outrage at the supposed betrayal and solidarity with his supposed betrayers). In São Paulo, an investigation is underway into claims that a gang of tax inspectors salted away as much as R$500 million in ‘discounts’ from local businesses. (Prior to his arrest, one of their number led a life of ostentatious luxury, defiantly confessing to friends: “Of course I steal!”). And, in what might be dubbed Brazil’s Great Train Robbery, a further R$500 million is suspected to have been lost in bribes and overbillings dispensed by a cartel of foreign and Brazilian companies contracted to build São Paulo’s metro system. (Though arguably Brazil’s greatest train-related felony is its criminal underinvestment in its knackered, largely British-built railway system, which is subject to almost weekly violent mutinies by stranded suburban passengers and remains woefully ill-equipped to carry Brazil’s ever-increasing load of foreign-bound raw materials).

Brazil has lost none of its appeal as a potential bolt-hole for international fugitives, as Edward Snowden’s request for asylum, published the day before Ron’s demise, attests. It seems unlikely, however, that the Brazilian government will acquiesce to it given that it has just delivered a calculated insult to the US (in the form of a multi-billion-dollar jet-fighter contract awarded to Swedish contractor, Saab, over its American rival, Boeing) but doesn’t want to risk a full-scale rupture with such an important trading partner. (The Brazilian Foreign Office has moreover displayed a cultural aversion, in recent years, to doing what might be termed ‘the right thing’. If Snowden wants to gain sanctuary in a South American country with a genuinely progressive government, he’d be better off applying to Uruguayan President, José Mujica’s administration). But if Biggs could offer a word of advice to his fellow outlaw, as Snowden’s domicile options dwindle, the Russian winter sets in and the Obama administration shows no sign of relenting, it would probably be: never back down to anyone – and, next time, nick something you can at least play Monopoly with.