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Rio de Janeiro police have adopted a new tactic in their war against kidnapping: They're holding the kidnapper's next-of-kin hostage.

In a joint action last week, Rio and neighboring Minas Gerais state police forces put a kidnapper's wife under house arrest for eight hours while they negotiated the release of a 21-year-old student with her husband.Led to the kidnapper's Rio residence through an anonymous phone call, police released his wife after the student was freed.

But the kidnapper's wife claimed the police beat her and threatened to kill her month-old baby unless she provided information on her husband's whereabouts. Rio state Gov. Marcello Alencar has ordered an investigation.

The police forces' adoption of kidnappers' methods represents a new low in a war that continues to claim many casualties. There have been 577 kidnappings in Rio in six years, according to Rio's Secretary of Public Safety. Ninety occurred in 1994, 106 in 1995 and 11 in January 1996 alone.

In one of the most recent kidnappings, eight men armed with machine-guns abducted the son of a Rio store owner as he was leaving his apartment.

During the past six years kidnapping also has increased in other Brazilian cities, mainly due to the growing gap between rich and poor.

Rio is also a center for drug trafficking. Hundreds of rival pushers have set up in Rio's hillside shantytowns, or "favelas," and ransoms - sometimes reaching several million dollars - help provide the cocaine they need to stay in business.

Days after the son of Eduardo Eugenio Gouveia Vieira, president of the Rio de Janeiro Industrial Federation (Firjan), was kidnapped and held captive for 35 days last autumn, Gouveia Vieira gave a press conference accusing Rio's drug-using elite of keeping the drug rings in business.

"Drug trafficking and kidnapping are both part of the same business. And drug trafficking exists only because of drug consumers," he said.

In January, Rio police chief Helio Luz fanned public outrage by saying that the kidnapping of Gouveia Vieira's son "was a way of redistributing wealth." He was later forced to make a public apology.

When Luz became chief of Rio's anti-kidnap squad last May, shortly before becoming chief of the civil police, he also gained notoriety for saying that the squad would no longer be involved in carrying out kidnappings. Last April, a member of Rio's anti-kidnap squad moonlighting as a member of a kidnapping ring provided the squad car used to abduct a 13-year-old girl in Minas Gerais state.

Widespread police corruption is also why the authorities are losing the war against kidnapping.

Two years ago, a Rio state prosecutor planning to arrest more than 100 big drug dealers (some of whom were involved in kidnappings) called off the bust due to a police tip-off. And from 1987-1990, 1,200 Rio police suspected or found guilty of commiting a crime - including kidnapping - were dismissed.

Corruption is also one reason why most hostage families prefer to pay a ransom without advising the police. "They usually feel this is the best bet for getting back their loved ones," said Jose Carlos Fragoso, a Rio lawyer who has represented the families of 15 hostages.

A spate of kidnappings late last year helped rouse 200,000 Rio residents to take to the streets on Nov. 28 to protest the city's rising crime rate. The "Reage, Rio!" ("Rio, React!") citizen's action movement that organized the march, however, offered no concrete proposals on how to curb it.

There were 24 murders in greater Rio that day, higher than the average daily number, given the statistics: 6,012 murders in the first nine months of 1995.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)