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Overseas Security Advisory Council
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Brazil 2019 Crime & Safety Report: São Paulo

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Brazil at Level 2, indicating travelers should exercise increased caution due to crime. Do not travel to any areas within 150 km of Brazil's land borders with Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, and Paraguay due to crime; (Note: This does not apply to the Foz do Iguacu National Park or Pantanal National Park.) or to informal housing developments (commonly referred to in Brazil as favelas, vilas, communidades, and/or conglomerados), at any time of day due to crime.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

The U.S. Consulate in General São Paulo does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The American Citizen Services unit (ACS) cannot recommend a particular individual or establishment, and assumes no responsibility for the quality of services provided.

Review OSAC’s Brazil-specific webpage for for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.

Crime Threats

There is serious risk from crime in São Paulo. Crime continues to be a significant concern for visitors of São Paulo. Similar to most densely populated megacities throughout the world, São Paulo experiences a high volume of crime ranging from petty theft to homicide.

Financially-motivated crime such as armed robbery, pickpocketing, purse snatching and smash-and-grab thefts occur with the greatest frequency. Criminals engaged in this activity are often armed and will target their victims indiscriminately, with a preference for persons projecting affluence and a lack of awareness of their surroundings. Targeted items include wallets/purses, jewelry, and electronics; cell phones are of particular interest. According to the Secretaria de Seguranca, there were 346,259 cell phones reported robbed or stolen between January and November 2018. Store electronics in the trunk of a vehicle when traveling to and from the airport, and limit the number of possessions carried on your person when out and about in the city.

All neighborhoods in São Paulo are susceptible to crime, including affluent residential sections where government and business leaders reside. Public transportation hubs, hotel sectors, and tourist areas have the highest rates of robbery and theft. the Secretary of Public Security publishes comprehensive crime statistics.

Street crime is an ever-present problem, especially in the evenings and late at night. Pay particular caution when traveling at night through rural areas and satellite cities, due to the significant potential for roadside robberies. Armed robberies are prevalent throughout São Paulo. In many of these instances, multiple armed criminals on foot or in vehicles (typically motorcycles) identify an isolated victim, or take advantage of traffic jams to rob a series of gridlocked vehicles. The criminals stop in front of or alongside their victim’s vehicle, present a firearm, and subsequently demand all of the victim’s valuables, then depart the area. In the majority of these incidents, compliant victims are unharmed.  

Exercise extreme caution in São Paulo nightclubs, which have swindled patrons into purchasing bottles of alcohol without disclosing the actual price of the drinks, at times running up to US$1,000/bottle. Security personnel have physically harassed patrons who refuse to pay, and have taken their credit cards. Do not accept drinks from strangers, and always watch your drink. Scopolamine or a similar drug may be added to your drink. Victims have awoken robbed of possessions and/or sexually assaulted after accepting open drinks. For more information, review OSAC’s reports, Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad, and Scopolamine Incidents on the Rise in Colombia.

Residential burglaries also pose a constant threat and concern. According to police, mobile street gangs often target residential areas in the city with more affluence. Criminals from the surrounding satellite cities travel by metro, bus, or car into these neighborhoods looking for targets of opportunity. Family members and household employees should not allow anyone to enter the residential grounds without proper identification and prearranged appointments. Local security companies that monitor security alarm systems tend to be the primary responders; local police response can be delayed for hours. Some neighborhoods employ static guard posts to monitor activity on the streets adjacent to homes. Larger properties and commercial sites generally employ 24/7 security guard services. 

Organized crime exists on a large scale. The largest Brazilian criminal organization, Primeiro Comando da Capital or PCC, is based in São Paulo. PCC is a violent prison gang that controls the majority of illegal contraband and drugs coming into/out of the prisons in São Paulo, and remains an organization of great interest to the government of Brazil and the police.

There are noticeable nationwide increases in reported crime in December and January, likely attributable to Brazil’s liberal system of prison furloughs that allows for leave during the holidays, a higher percentage of police officers on annual leave during the Christmas season, diversion of police resources to patrol popular coastal areas, and the receipt of a “13th month” salary bonus in December that leaves many Brazilians with extra disposable income. Burglars also frequently target vacant homes and apartments during these two months, while owners and tenants are traveling.

Cybersecurity Issues

A growing area of concern is the rise in cybercrime. Cybercriminals with significant capabilities regularly target U.S. businesses in Brazil. Brazilian cybercriminals are sophisticated and regularly employ malware, and steal billions of dollars annually despite government efforts to stop malicious online activity. Some debit/credit card thefts have been attributed to hacking; close monitoring of banking account information should automatically follow any sales transactions to ensure credit/debit cards and personal information is not compromised. Withdrawing money from ATMs not inside hotels, banks, airports, or other locations with supplementary security measures poses serious risks. Maintain awareness of popular schemes to avoid becoming a cybercrime victim. For more information, review OSAC’s report, Cybersecurity Basics.

Other Areas of Concern

Throughout Brazil, low-income informal urban areas known as favelas (sometimes called Communidades) are common and easily recognizable. These areas ruled by drug lords host regular shoot-outs between traffickers and police, as well as other assorted illegal activity, with high frequency. These areas are off-limits to Embassy/Consulate personnel; avoid them.

Parks and recreational areas frequented by visitors and citizens have experienced severe crimes, mostly at night, to include theft and sexual assault. Depart from these public areas before sundown. Although assault and theft are also common during the day, higher rates of crime have been reported at night.  

The border areas of Brazil – particularly the Tri-Border Area (TBA) where the countries of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet – are havens for drug smuggling and human trafficking. Exercise extreme caution when traveling to these areas. Visitors to Foz de Iguazu should limit activities to the national park’s resort areas, and not venture beyond well-guarded tourist sites.

Transportation-Safety Situation

For more information, review OSAC’s report, Security in Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

Road Safety and Road Conditions

Road conditions outside the main cities vary greatly. The surface conditions of roads in cities are generally poor, with numerous potholes, some of which can cause significant damage to a vehicle’s suspension system. Flooding happens often during the rainy season, and can leave the operator with little time to get to higher ground.

Lighting, traffic signals, and road markings vary from good to poor depending on the city/state.

Brazil uses automatic photo-ticketing systems to discourage speeding; the owner of a ticketed vehicle receives the infraction by mail. 

São Paulo suffers from extreme traffic congestion. It is very common for criminals to take advantage of peak traffic hours to victimize motorists that are stationary in traffic. In this manner, criminals are able to target a string of vehicles, rather than a single victim. Inquire what the current peak transit times are and, to the extent possible, plan commutes around those peak times. Carjacking and victimization while commuting is particularly concerning, so much so that affluent Brazilians commonly choose to armor and heavily tint the windows of their personal vehicles. The city is inundated with motorcyclists, many of whom are responsible for snatching items from open vehicle windows. Personal mapping applications and GPS occasionally routes drivers through favelas and other high crime areas. For more information on self-driving, review OSAC’s report, Driving Overseas: Best Practices.

Public Transportation Conditions

São Paulo has an extensive bus and metro system, as well as taxi services. While none are off-limits, exercise caution, as each mode of transportation has its own unique security concerns. 

Buses are plentiful and generally keep a steady schedule. However, protests and demonstrations target the bus and mass transit systems; protestors sometimes burn and/or rob buses in transit.

The metro system is often over crowded. There are daily reports of individuals being pickpocketed or robbed, and females groped/touched inappropriately.

Recently, São Paulo has experienced several demonstrations against the increases in public transportation prices. These protests, on occasion, have affected transit lines.

Use official taxis or a legitimate ride-hailing service (e.g. Uber, 99 Taxi) while in São Paulo. Residents and visitors alike use these transportation applications frequently, with very few reports of security issues. Nonetheless, refrain from getting in a vehicle with other passengers, and object to picking up other individuals along your route. For more information on ride-sharing, review OSAC’s report, Safety and Security in the Share Economy.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

São Paulo’s three major airports are Congonhas (CGH, domestic), Guarulhos, (GRU, international) and Viracopos/Campinas (VCP, international) are generally safe, particularly within their secure areas. Reports of crime against travelers along the road to the airport frequently occur; criminals exploit congested traffic conditions and look to identify potential targets of wealth and affluence as they arrive and depart.

Terrorism Threat

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

There is minimal risk from terrorism in São Paulo. Brazil is a non-aligned country with no significant enemies, and is not targeted by any known international radical groups.

Though there are no known indigenous terrorist groups operating in Brazil, a number of individuals who identify themselves as ISIS members or sympathizers operate in the country. Concerns exist regarding the facilitation of transfers of money and people for terrorist organizations.  

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Civil Unrest

There is moderate risk from political violence in São Paulo. Protests and strikes occur frequently throughout Brazil, especially in major cities. Due to Brazil’s issues related to public corruption, economic downturn, and recent political transition, there has been an increase in civil unrest. São Paulo hosts public demonstrations periodically. The vast majority of these are peaceful, but some develop into violence, resulting in disturbances, property damage, and confrontation between protestors and opposing groups and/or police. The majority of protests in São Paulo occur on Avenida Paulista (near MASP) or in or around Praça da Sé (See Square). Exercise caution when approaching crowds, and avoid areas where protests are being held. In the past several years, Brazilians, political parties, and social organizations have used major international and national events as a platform to voice discontent with the Brazilian government.

São Paulo and a large portion of Brazil also deal with protestors using black bloc tactics. Their mission is to infiltrate otherwise peaceful demonstrations to cause chaos and violence between police forces and protestors. Their tactics involve total face coverage.

Frequent calls for strikes remain a constant concern. In 2018, Brazil experienced widespread strikes from truck drivers calling for legal and tax reform related to the truck driving industry. These strikes caused nationwide road paralysis, which led to a shortage of food, medicine, and oil across Brazil. Similar threats of strike originating from the public transportation and education industries have been voiced throughout 2018 and into 2019.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Flooding is a problem nationwide and has plagued São Paulo state and many other parts of the country. Over the last several years, severe rainstorms have occurred annually, causing flooding in São Paulo, with fatalities, homes destroyed, and bridges/highways closed. Intense rain also causes severe gridlock.

Critical Infrastructure

As the economic/commercial center of the country, São Paulo is the main transport hub for not only Brazil, but for South America. This level of activity has unfortunately included several industrial and transportation incidents throughout the past several years. Vehicle accidents carrying hazardous chemicals occur on the major highways, shutting roadways for significant periods until the area can be cleared and sanitized. The city’s underground rail system has also experienced mishaps, including electrical outages and train stoppages.

Economic Concerns

Many firms have raised concerns about intellectual property rights enforcement, including counterfeit goods and a deteriorating situation in São Paulo since 2012, serving as the primary gateway to the country’s other markets. Brazil’s software industry consistently sees licensing compliance under 50%.   

Personal Identity Concerns

Hate-related crimes rarely occur, though some U.S. citizens have reported being the target of comments/actions because of their nationality or race.

Brazil’s federal law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, but several states and municipalities have administrative regulations that prohibit such discrimination and provide for equal access to government services.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities in employment, transportation, education, and access to health care; the federal government generally enforces these standards. It is common for the elderly, pregnant women, and disabled individuals to receive priority treatment at public and private establishments

Drug-related Crimes

A large proportion of crimes have a nexus to narcotics. São Paulo experiences the harmful effects of illicit drug trafficking. Drug use contributes to criminal activity (e.g. street assaults, robberies) to support addictions. Several Brazilian cities are transshipment points for illicit drugs, especially cocaine. Brazil is the number two consumer of cocaine in the world, behind the United States. Crack cocaine use is increasing in São Paulo; Brazil is world’s largest consumer of crack cocaine.

Kidnapping Threat

“Express kidnapping” continues as an ongoing trend in São Paulo. In these incidents, kidnappers take victims gunpoint to several ATMs to withdraw cash. While the victims are most often Brazilians, foreigners are also susceptible. The general guidance is to park vehicles in garages and other well lighted/guarded areas, since criminals will often confront victims upon entry into their vehicles. Limit the amount of bank/credit cards in your wallet, to limit the potential loss and duration of the incident.

“Virtual kidnapping” scams also occur with some frequency, particularly targeting business leaders. These incidents often involve allegations that the business leader’s family member has been kidnapped, and demand a ransom. Usually these incidents involve smaller amounts, with demands for expediency (before it is discovered that the alleged kidnapping victim is not actually kidnapped.) 

Kidnapping for ransom does occur from time to time. U.S. businesses often take security precautions for senior executives resident in São Paulo, arranging significant security measures for high-level visits.

For more information, review OSAC’s report, Kidnapping: The Basics.

Police Response

In relation to its population, São Paulo enjoys some of the lowest crime rates in Brazil. However, the sheer volume of crime committed in São Paulo makes it very difficult for authorities to respond to all security calls in a timely fashion. Police officials frequently cite a lack of resources, staffing shortages, lack of basic equipment, traffic conditions, and morale as reasons for widely varying response times and unsolved crime. When police do respond, victims must go to the police station to file a report and complete other investigative formalities. Public confidence in police is not very high due to perception of heavy handedness, ineffectiveness, and corruption.

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

Immediately inform the American Citizen Services Office of the U.S. Consulate at +55 (11) 3250-5000 or +55 (11) 3250-5373 if you encounter problems while traveling in São Paulo, including detainment/arrest.

Crime Victim Assistance

 

National Emergency Services

Tel

Military Police of São Paulo (Polícia Militar do Estado de São Paulo)

190 (Portuguese) or 911 (English)

Fire Service (Corpo de Bombeiros)

193

National Civil Police (Polícia Civil)

197

Medical Emergency (Ambulância)

192

Federal Police (Polícia Federal)

(11) 3538 5000

Sea Rescue (Salvamento Marítimo)

(21) 2104 6119

 

Police/Security Agencies

Many U.S. companies use armored vehicles, sometimes including bodyguards, to transport senior executives who may be targets due to their high profile or high-value status.

Medical Emergencies

Contact Information for Available Medical Services

For medical assistance, refer to the Consulate’s Medical Assistance page.

Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Brazil.

OSAC Country Council Information

The Country Council in São Paulo is active, meeting on a monthly basis. U.S. private-sector security managers are encouraged to contact the RSO in São Paulo for specific inquiries concerning the local security situation. Information is also readily available from the RSO offices in Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, and Recife, and from the active OSAC Country Council in Rio de Janeiro. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s Latin America team with any questions or to join. 

U.S. Consulate Location and Contact Information

Consulate Address and Hours of Operation

U.S. Consulate General São Paulo

Rua Thomas Deloney 381, Chacara Santo Antonio, São Paulo, 04710-110.

Consulate Contact Numbers

+55 (11) 3250-5000

Emergencies and calls after business hours +55 (11) 3250-5373.

Website: https://br.usembassy.gov/embassy-consulates/saopaulo/

Nearby Posts: Embassy Brasilia, Consulate General Rio de Janeiro, Consulate General Recife, Presence Post Belo Horizonte, Presence Post Porto Alegre

Consulate Guidance

U.S. citizens traveling to Brazil should register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to ensure they receive pertinent security updates and notices.

Additional Resource: Brazil Country Information Sheet

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