Tell anyone that you're going to Brazil, and you will inevitably be asked whether or not it's safe. In fact, you'll likely be told that it's not -- no questions asked. To say that the nation's reputation precedes it is an understatement. Nearly 18 million entries on Google address the issue, and advice generally ranges from practical to outrageous.
Brazil can be a volatile and unpredictable place. For evidence, look no further than a fall 2017 incident in which a Spanish tourist was killed by police in Rio de Janeiro. According to the New York Times, her driver failed to stop near the Rocinha favela, which is in the midst of a violent spree of tit-for-tat killings between the militarized police and local gangs. When you add political instability, a resurgent right-wing government, rampant income inequality, and a stalled economy, the nation's discord is an unsurprising development. Like anywhere else on earth, those factors have unfortunately correlated to increases in crime and violence.
The picture is more complicated, though, and there are almost as many arguments for visiting Brazil as there are safety concerns to dissuade you from going. The truth is that Brazil is one of the most fascinating places on earth, and missing your chance to see it firsthand would be a major mistake. However, you'll need to keep your wits about you and exercise extra vigilance. It also helps to know a few facts before you go to help gain some perspective on the larger situation.
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Sky-High Murder Rates? That Depends Where You Go
Some figures simply can’t be disputed, and the murder rate in Brazil is sky-high on a national level. In fact, Brazil eclipses both Mexico and Nigeria when it comes to murders per 100,000 citizens. But keep in mind that Brazil is huge — you could fit the entirety of Europe comfortably within its borders, or Mexico and Nigeria combined (and a few other countries, for that matter). This makes it hard to universally declare the country an unsafe, murder-filled place. Imagine defining the United States by the sky-high rates of gun-related violence currently plaguing Chicago, or by the nation’s frequent mass shootings. Generally speaking — according to the numbers — the United States actually has a low murder rate. Like all nations, though, some parts are more adversely affected by violence due to rampant income inequality, a lack of government funding for social services, lax gun laws, and systemic problems with policing.
To put things in perspective, most first-time visitors to Brazil will spend time in one or both of its two biggest cities: Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Sao Paulo has 50 percent more people than New York City, yet its murder rate is lower than those of major U.S. cities like Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Memphis, Nashville, Houston, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. Rio de Janeiro is approximately the same size as Los Angeles and Chicago combined, and yet despite its continued struggle with violent gun crime, the murder rate in the entire state of Rio de Janeiro was lower than Baltimore, St. Louis, and Detroit. Is that good company? Not necessarily. But do Detroit’s crime woes keep major media outlets like the New York Times from regularly featuring it as an exciting, must-see urban destination that’s regularly featured on its Travel homepage? No.
The picture is upsetting elsewhere too, including Brazil’s north, which is home to cities like Salvador — the Afro-Brazilian heart of the country — Manaus, Belem, Fortaleza, and Recife. These cities figure largely in tours that take in the Amazon, or for travelers heading to the remote beaches in the north and northwest. Salvador, in particular, has been exercising an outsized pull on travelers with its fascinating old town, lively music scene, and legendary carnival celebrations. Despite the city’s not-insubstantial murder rate, it’s on par with Cape Town, South Africa, and Baltimore, Maryland.
How The Other Half Lives: Life in Rio's Favelas
There aren’t too many cities on earth where staggering wealth and desperate poverty sit literally side by side as they do in Rio de Janeiro. Here, the lowest-income neighborhoods — the favelas — are within direct eyesight of the most well-off, in a feat of urban inequality perhaps only rivaled in scope by Mumbai. And yet, there’s a great deal of contemporary Brazilian culture that has — like the United States — come directly from its most economically disadvantaged black and brown communities (who make up the bulk of favela residents). The favelas gave birth to the funk music that currently dominates Brazil’s radio stations (and was made internationally famous by white non-Brazilian producers like Diplo), and are the origin for nearly every samba school partaking in carnival. But favela residents have contributed even more than great music and cultural riches to Rio de Janeiro. They’re also the source of drastically underpaid labor for the wealthy parts of the city.
The existence of the favelas, and their proximity to tourist hotspots like Ipanema, Leblon, and Copacabana, is — in part — due to the very creation of those same wealthy Zona Sul neighborhoods. As in Mumbai, the rich neighborhoods were built using cheap labor that flocked to the city from impoverished rural areas of the country. These workers were then paid inhuman wages to construct the dazzling towers that line Rio’s beaches. Since the wages offered by the contractors were too low to afford any proper housing, the workers occupied the hills nearby, without any amenities or services provided by the municipality. , Rio’s favelas are now home to nearly a quarter of the city’s population. Today, the residents of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon continue to employ nannies, housekeepers, and drivers who come from those very same neighborhoods (or favelas elsewhere in the city). Of course, the wages those workers earn are still far below the poverty line.
Today, those same economic inequalities — as well as the business opportunities created by the wealthy Zona Sul partiers and their penchant for drugs — keep many of the favelas locked in a cycle of poverty and violence. This is made worse by ongoing exclusionary policies and blatant racism, which prevents these same citizens from gaining a substantial economic foothold in quote-unquote legitimate industries. According to pri.org and student research done by Hugo Nicolau Barbosa de Gusmão, while Zona Sul is nearly 80 percent white (in a nation where more than half the population identifies as some mix of black, brown, and white), areas like the Cantagalo favela between Ipanema and Copacabana are almost exclusively black and brown.
Should You Go on a Favela Tour?
Rio’s similarities to Mumbai don’t end at matters of geography and demographics. As travelers have continued to seek ever-more novel experiences, the rise of tours through impoverished neighborhoods has become a full-fledged industry in both cities. And while this practice can be a boon in some neighborhoods, there are ongoing concerns over the tradeoffs. In Rio, in particular, favela tours come with two edges. On one hand, they open up a space between favela residents and tourists — the latter of whom often have the same resources and lifestyles as the wealthy classes of Rio — and provide for cross-cultural exposure. However, favela tours also rely upon the notion of pacification.
In Rio, pacification often means large-scale violent interventions on the part of the police and military, creating even more havoc in already violent neighborhoods. This style of policing often relies on perceptions to make judgment calls on guilt or innocence, much like so-called “broken windows policing” in New York City. Unfortunately, those perceptions are made on the part of the police and military, who represent and enforce the laws created by the wealthy. Since rampant inequality largely falls along color lines in Rio (and elsewhere in the world), this approach only further marginalizes the disadvantaged residents of the favelas.
This can have a problematic two-fold effect. On one hand, it accelerates the policed community’s flight into the hands of drug gangs, who offer a means of fighting back and financial stability. On the other hand, the presence of military firepower does nothing to address the social conditions that have led to the violence within the favelas in the first place. Pacification isn’t a permanent solution so long as those social conditions remain in place. Look no further than Rocinha for an example. While it was once considered pacified, violence has flared again in recent years, according to pri.org and Reuters.
In the Cantagalo favela, the military police have an outpost directly in the neighborhood, a condition that’s required as part of the government-run pacification program, per The Guardian. This has led to the proliferation of posh Airbnb rentals, boutique hotels that host rooftop parties, and even the establishment of the Museu da Favela (the latter does attempt to do valuable cross-cultural work and run education program about the invaluable contributions of the favelas to the larger Brazilian community). And yet, at night, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a taxi driver who will willingly take you through the area. What’s more? The favela’s reliance on tourist dollars only furthers the problem of an entire neighborhood having to rely on a single source of income — tourism, in this case.
Putting Brazilian Street Crime in Perspective
Horrifying fates like the one met by the Spanish tourist in October 2017 are fairly rare for tourists visiting to Brazil, and it’s important to note that her death came as the result of Brazil’s police force, not its armed favelados. Even so, the day-to-day violence in Rio and other cities (aside from Sao Paulo) is a problem that plagues the lives of Brazilians. Tourists visiting are likely to hear tales of motorcycle-riding muggers stealing backpacks off of peoples’ backs, phones being snatched from hands, and bus rides resulting in sometimes multiple pickpocketings. Brazil’s income inequity only fuels the desperation that results in these crimes. Even with this in mind, it’s again helpful to look at broader facts. Just a few years ago, the rates of theft in Belgium were nearly four times higher per 100,000 people than those in Brazil, according to studies cited by Clements Worldwide. In fact, theft rates in the United States also far outpaced Brazil.
National averages don’t speak to the picture on the ground in a diverse array of cities and towns. The truth is that busy, crowded, and tourist-popular areas in Brazil will always be higher-risk zones for petty theft and muggings. That’s generally the case in major cities around the world. Indeed, according to New York City’s own data, the two precincts that hold the lion’s share of the city’s tourist hotels — as well as Broadway, Hell’s Kitchen, Times Square, and Fifth Avenue — have the highest non-fatal crime rates of all five boroughs.
Stay Safe by Using Common Sense
International travel — and travel in general — always entails risk. Travelers are literally putting themselves out there, often times in unknown places, which only makes them stand out all the more. In Brazil, this can be exacerbated by the extreme and often times obvious divisions between those who have financial resources and those who do not. The more you stand out, the more likely you will be targeted — that fact holds around the world. While some of this can’t be controlled, other means of safeguarding yourself and your property are fairly non-intrusive and should keep you safe. In any case, most of these tips are exactly what you would do to protect yourself in any major city.
For starters, get used to being a bit more discreet about what you flaunt. Brazil isn’t a demure country by any stretch of the imagination, and you’ll see plenty of locals out in their thickest chains and shimmering earrings, but you should tuck your jewelry away if you’re walking around at night (or just leave it at home). Like New York City, chain snatchings aren’t uncommon. The same goes for cell phones. These should generally be kept — like any cash or credit cards — in front pockets, and taken out infrequently at night. During the day, common sense usage on the streets of most tourist-oriented neighborhoods within the cities should be fine.
While we’ve heard horror stories of backpacks being sliced open and the contents stolen right off of the traveler’s back, the truth is that most Brazilians walk around with backpacks, purses, and the like. In Rio, you can’t necessarily go to the beach without one to hold your gear, so try to post up with friends and keep your belongings tied to chairs, umbrellas, or something marginally anchored. High season in Rio means that bag-snatching on the beach is big business. Don’t take anything of real value with you, and just bring enough reais to cover your beers, coconuts, and food.
Transportation is another way to safeguard yourself. While crime on buses can be an issue, the metro systems in both Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are modern, clean, efficient, and safe. Uber is available in Brazil and should be your go-to for getting around at night if you’re traveling any real distance. Indeed, some travelers will hail an Uber to merely travel from one end of a neighborhood to another, as it offers a degree of protection.
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