Safety in Brazil
Image and Reality
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
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
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 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
- 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
View of the
safe Rocinha favela. Rocinha is Rio's
largest favela, and one of the largest in Latin
in of the Rocinha favela in Rio.
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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!
The author enjoys
the view atop the Dois Irmaos ("hill of the
two brothers") overlooking Rio.
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.
He recently published a book entitled Live
Well in Rio de Janeiro: The Untourist Guide, which
is available on Amazon. In his free time, he enjoys photography