Rio de Janeiro has a reputation for being dangerous and having high crime rates. However, despite an increase in crime since 2015, the situation has generally improved during recent years and violent crime rarely affects tourists. You might get something stolen but most visits are without major problems if you are careful and behave in a sensible way. 

Theft and robbery

During 2015, there was an increase in street crime, theft and robbery in Rio de Janeiro, particularly around the Ipanema and Copacabana beach areas. Reports have been made of so called mass mob robberies (arrastões), which have occurred on crowded beaches and other areas frequented by tourists. It is recommended to limit the amount of items and cash brought when visiting beach areas. It is also a good idea to distribute your money in several pockets, or to have a throw-away wallet with a small amount of cash to hand over in case of a mugging.

Tourists often risk being targeted by criminals due to perceived wealth. The risk of being a subject of theft or robbery as a foreign traveller is considered to be elevated near beaches, bars, nightclubs, hotel areas and on lowly populated streets, particularly during evening and night-time. It is recommended to avoid traveling alone during night-time, including on buses. The risk is also elevated before and during the Rio carnival and other festivals.

Various forms of scams are also reportedly common as a method of robbery. Tourists looking like they are lost may be approached by fake good samaritans using the pretense of wanting to help in order to steal valuables or bags. There have also been reports of thieves posing as policemen, approaching tourists at airports and robbing them after leading them out of the terminal.

Travellers should take particular care when using ATMs due to the occurrence of so called quicknappings. This particular form of crime usually entails armed criminals kidnapping people at ATMs, in order to then take them to several ATMs and force them to withdraw as much cash as possible. Even though there is no indication that foreign travellers have been specifically targeted in such instances, they could be vulnerable to it. The local security profile should be considered when withdrawing money, and it is recommended to use ATMs in hotels, well attended malls or bank offices.

If you are driving in Rio, note that muggings can occur on the roads. Robbers might for instance approach cars that are standing still at intersections or elsewhere. Be vigilant at stoplights and when stuck in traffic, especially at night. You should always keep the car moving if possible. In fact, it is sometimes acceptable to run a red light if you are suspecting someone might rob you, although be aware of oncoming traffic. Two streets are especially notable when it comes to car muggings: Avenida Brasil, which is right next to the Mare favela, and Linha Vermelha.

Tourists looking like they are lost may be approached by fake good samaritans using the pretense of wanting to help in order to steal valuables or bags.

The murder rate in Rio de Janeiro is relatively high (although lower than in many other South American countries), but deadly violence rarely affects visitors.

Favela districts

The relative progress in Rio de Janeiro during the last few years concerning crime rates has been attested to the institution of the so called Pacifying Police Units (UPP) programme deployed in the “favelas”. Organized criminal groups and major gangs have a significant presence and exercise control in some parts of Rio de Janeiro. These slum districts are usually referred to as favelas, and exist in several Brazilian cities. The origin of such districts is found in massive urbanization in the 1970s, as many of the people moving from the countryside could not afford housing in established areas of the city. According to statistics from 2010, approximately 6 percent of the country’s population live in favela districts.

The so called  Pacifying Police Unit programme (Portuguese: Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora, abbreviated UPP, has been in operation since 2008, with specially trained local police forces being deployed in the favela districts. Some of the largest and most renowned favela districts have been the focus of the programme. Parts of the Complexo do Alemão favela cluster in northern Rio were secured in 2010. The Rocinha favela was declared pacified in 2011. The Maré favela, which had been under the control of drug gangs for a long time, was the subject of a large security operation in early 2014, ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, in order to establish government control over the area.

UPP has since the end of the World Cup left Maré. While some of the city’s favelas have seen safety improve, others have backslid into violence as gangs have regrouped. For instance, both the Maré and Rocinha favela is again considered very dangerous to enter. The UPP is present in most favelas in the Copacabana area and near the Maracanã Stadium, with the notable exception of Complexo da Maré. With the Olympics a month away, analysts predict they’ll soon return to Maré.

Drug crime and violence still pose issues in these districts, but they have moved off the streets and the previously common presence of street gangs armed with military grade weapons has been mitigated. However, note that it is still considered very dangerous to visit these areas, and you should never go into a favela by yourself. Before going on trips to various areas beyond the central urban districts, it is recommended to enquire local contacts or hotel staff about security in the areas you plan to visit.

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