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Safety in Brazil

Image and Reality

View of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
View of Rio in its geographical and metropolitan diversity.

Media coverage of Brazil can be confusing.

On the one hand, you may see footage of idyllic white-sand beaches and Carnival revelry in the streets, with everyone beaming broadly and having a wonderful carefree time.

However, the next evening there is footage of armored police vehicles clawing up a narrow winding street into a favela, with sporadic small-arms fire heard behind the reporter, who is wearing a Kevlar vest.

So What is the Reality?

Both images of Brazil are valid to some degree. The unfortunate truth is that there is crime, including violent crime, here in Brazil. Statistics portray Brazil as one of the more violent countries in the Western Hemisphere.

But those statistics shouldn’t discourage you from visiting Brazil.

Why would I say such a seemingly irresponsible thing?

Because Brazil is a huge, diverse, extremely interesting, and incredibly beautiful country, well worth visiting. And what the statistics fail to show is how localized crime is here. Everyone who lives in Brazil knows this, even if most media outlets fail to mention this reality.

The Iguacu falls in Brazil.
The beauty is Brazil is diverse and spectacular, and more than offsets some largely petty crime in the cities of the country.

Comparing Personal Experience in Brazil and the U.S.

Consider my own history in Brazil. I first visited Brazil in 1993, and in all came here about 15 times before finally relocating to Rio in 2008. As I write this, it's mid-2015. During all those years, here are my personal experiences with crime in Brazil:

  • I caught two small children working together trying to pick my pockets in a Carnival parade in Salvador. I was carrying nothing of value, and let them go.
  • In Rio last year, another pickpocket tried to steal my cell phone from my front pocket, also during a Carnival parade. (I will accept some culpability for not being more careful.) I caught his wrist, screamed bloody murder, and a crowd encircled us so he couldn't get away. The police immediately arrested him.
  • Twice I've had arguments with street people who were too persistent in asking for money. There was no physicality.
  • My friend Greg and I were on Ipanema Beach. He slung his fanny pack bandolero style across the back of his beach chair. We turned our backs for perhaps three minutes to chat up two girls no more than 13 or 14 feet away, and when we returned the pack was gone. Greg and I grudgingly admitted that the person — likely a child who could avoid attracting attention — was extremely talented.

That’s the extent of my problems with crime during 22 years in Brazil.

I wish I’d been so fortunate in the U.S. There, my apartment was broken into and looted. My car was also broken into on a separate occasion. I was almost shot in the head at near point-blank range at the age of 19 in a case of mistaken identity. I was beaten up in a bar because a guy was drunk and looking for a fight.

The truth is the U.S. isn’t as safe as we often pretend it to be. And all of Brazil isn’t as dangerous as it is generally portrayed by a media more intent on sensationalism than on objective reporting.

Yes, there is crime here. But virtually any local in any city in Brazil can tell you where the unsafe areas are. Avoid these, and you greatly reduce your risk of becoming a victim.

My friend Cris Nogueira, author of the guidebook Rio for Partiers, believes that most crime in Brazil is what he terms “rational crime” — crime motivated by financial gain (as opposed to random shootings in schools, churches, movie theaters, workplaces, etc.). Violent crimes very often are gang-on-gang confrontations in the favelas. (Favelas are Brazil’s shantytowns; the preferred term these days is “communidades”.) If you are not in a gang and avoid the communities known to be dangerous, you dramatically lower your risk of running into trouble.

View of Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
View of the safe Rocinha favela. Rocinha is Rio's largest favela, and one of the largest in Latin America.

Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Street scene in of the Rocinha favela in Rio.

Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Lively scene from Bar do David in the Chapeu-Mangueira favela of Rio near where the author lives, with his friend Dave in the white shirt.

Safety Tips for Tourists/Travelers in Brazil

Of course, visitors to Brazil aren’t immune to crimes. Assuming that you are Joe/Jane Tourist, what can you do to reduce your risk of becoming a victim? Here are some simple and easy-to-apply tips:

  • When going out, take along only what you need. In particular, don’t walk around carrying excess money and plastic. Don’t carry your entire wallet if all you really need is 50 reais for an afternoon at the beach. It is a good idea to carry some form of ID; usually a color copy is sufficient. More on this below.
  • Similarly, I discourage you from wearing flashy watches or jewelry in most venues. Not only does such behavior mark you as a target in the eyes of some, to many others who live at a subsistence level, it’s a bit of a slap in the face. You may never have considered that.
  • If you plan to be out in a Carnival parade, assume that there will be some pickpockets working. Take the bare minimum with you. Keep cash in a shoe or a concealed money belt — at a minimum in a pocket that buttons. Leave the cell phone at the hotel or guard it carefully.
  • By the way, be aware that the most common crime in Rio is cell phone theft. If you need to make a call, it’s usually a simple matter to step into a store, hotel lobby, or doorway to make your call more discretely.
  • Plan to take taxis after dark if you aren’t familiar with the bus routes and metros. Note that the metro in Rio does not operate between midnight and 6:00 AM.
  • On buses, sit or stand closer to the front, near the driver and cashier.
  • When heading to the beach, again take the least amount of money and belongings. When you want to go for a splash, you might want to take turns, leaving someone to guard your belongings. Alternatively, you could ask a beach neighbor to keep an eye on things. I prefer to ask older women or couples. If you've rented chairs from a kiosk on the beach, you could also deposit your things there.
  • Don’t leave your wallet or valuables sitting out on a tabletop, even if you are seated right there. Boys can snatch and run amazingly quickly.
  • If you need help, cry “Socorro!” This sounds more or less like, “suh KO ho." Have a Brazilian coach you.
  • Honestly — and I’m not being facetious — your greatest danger in larger cities like Rio may be in crossing the street. In many parts of Brazil, it’s unfortunately common to find aggressive driving coupled with a lack of appropriate respect for pedestrians. Look both ways, even on one-way streets, as bicycles and motorcycles don’t always obey the signs.
  • Women should be anticipate men being more aggressive in their approach, although this is generally more of an annoyance than any real danger. If you are out alone, you are likely to attract more advances.
  • Try to avoid groups of teen-aged boys or young men. Sometimes such groups (called “arrastãos”, literally “trawlers”) swarm individuals or couples, robbing them in the resulting confusion.
  • Credit card fraud is common in Brazil. It's best not to let the card out of your sight. Also, once you return home, monitor your account closely for the next couple of months.

I mentioned above that it's a good idea to carry some form of identification with you. An ID is generally required to enter a nightclub, and often is required to board an inter-city bus. Also, should you encounter any problem, it's good to have some identification on you. I recommend carrying a color copy of your passport photo page; leave the actual passport back at the hotel.

Should you need assistance, police usually aren't far away in Rio. And the emergency number for police, anywhere in Brazil, is 190. Note that in Rio there is a tourist police post in Leblon, located very near Leblon Shopping mall. They have English-speaking officers on staff.

At the beginning of this article I mentioned that most violent crime occurs in the favela communities. Does that mean that you should steer clear of all of them? Not at all. Many are safe. I’ve visited numerous communidades in Rio. I used to visit the communities of Vidigal and Chapeu-Mangueira quite frequently and never had any sort of problem. Being poor doesn’t equate to being a criminal.

The best thing you can do is simply to ask a few local people if a particular favela — or any area — is safe. And if you opt to go, it's best to go with someone who knows the area. If you do visit some favelas, you will most likely encounter some truly spectacular views. Also, I've found that Brazil's simpler people are often her friendliest.

Brazil is a diverse and culturally rich country — much more so than you would imagine watching the typical television coverage. It is remarkably beautiful. And the majority of Brazilians are wonderfully warm and receptive people. If you watched any of the news coverage during and following the 2014 World Cup games, you no doubt heard visitors repeatedly speak about the great warmth and hospitality of the people from the host country.

Follow this tips I’ve provided above, and your biggest dangers may well be sunburn and a hangover.

Ah yes, one final tip: Beware of those caipirinhas! They pack a wicked punch!

Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The author enjoys the view atop the Dois Irmaos ("hill of the two brothers") overlooking Rio.

John Clites is a U.S. citizen who first visited Brazil in 1993. He immediately fell in love with the country’s incredible natural beauty and its warm, welcoming people. John traveled Brazil extensively before finally giving up his career in software to move to Rio de Janeiro in 2008. John now has permanent resident status.

John divides his time between teaching English, writing about Brazil.

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