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Overseas Security Advisory Council
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Brazil 2020 Crime & Safety Report: Rio de Janeiro

This is an annual report produced in conjunction with the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Consulate General in Rio de Janeiro. OSAC encourages travelers to use this report to gain baseline knowledge of security conditions in southeastern Brazil. For more in-depth information, review OSAC’s  Brazil country page for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.

Travel Advisory

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/100 miles 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.) Do not travel to informal housing developments (commonly referred to in Brazil as favelas, vilas, comunidades, and/or conglomerados) at any time of day due to crime. Review OSAC’s report, Understanding the Consular Travel Advisory System.

Overall Crime & Safety Situation

Crime Threat

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Rio de Janeiro as being a CRITICAL-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Violent crimes such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, assault, and kidnapping are a frequent occurrence. In Zona Sul, opportunistic street crime such as pickpocketing, purse snatching, and smash-and-grab theft from vehicles and storefronts is a constant concern. These acts take place in all areas of the city at any time throughout the year. Review OSAC’s report, All That You Should Leave Behind.

Foreign visitors of all nationalities, including U.S. citizens, have been victims. Criminals most often target their victims due to perceived wealth and lack of awareness. There is no indication that criminals target U.S. citizens or U.S. government employees due to their nationality. Most criminals commit crimes while armed and will not hesitate to use violence if they encounter resistance. In most incidents, compliant victims were unharmed.

Do not accept drinks from strangers and always watch your drink. Criminals may add scopolamine or a similar drug to your drink. People have woken up robbed of their valuables or sexually assaulted after accepting such a drink. Review OSAC’s reports, Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad, and Scopolamine Incidents on the Rise in Colombia.

All of Rio’s neighborhoods are subject to criminal activity. Among them are ungoverned urban areas known as favelas (sometimes called communidades), which are often visually distinct from the most affluent neighborhoods. Drug gangs and militia groups dominate these areas; armed confrontations between traffickers and police occur frequently.

Parks, beaches, and other recreational areas have experienced violent crimes, mostly at night, to include assault, theft, and sexual assault. Depart from these public areas before sundown. Although assaults are also common during the day, higher rates of crime occur after dark.

There are noticeable increases in reported crime from December through February, likely attributable to the increased number of visitors during the summer and the worldwide popularity of New Year’s and Carnival festivities. In addition to the height of tourist season, a higher percentage of Brazilians take vacations during the holiday seasons. This results in fewer police officers available to patrol due to labor shortages, and more homes and apartments left vacant while owners and tenants travel, creating a target-rich environment for burglars. Review OSAC’s reports, Hotels: The Inns and Outs and Considerations for Hotel Security.

Major drug gangs and militias control organized crime in Rio de Janeiro, operating mainly in the favelas and in the country’s prison system. The Tri-Border Area (TBA) of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay is a regional hub for the transit of illicit goods, including narcotics and firearms. To date, no incidents directed against U.S. citizens have occurred in this area. Visitors to the area, to include Foz de Iguaçu, should remain especially vigilant and maintain a low profile.

The use of credit cards is extremely common in Rio. Most locals in Brazil do not carry cash. Cloning devices and radio frequency interception (RFI) of credit cards does occur in Rio, like any other major city. There are reports of beach vendors adding additional zeroes to legitimate charges of those unfamiliar with the exchange rate. The World Bank reports that Brazil has one of the highest concentrations of ATMs worldwide. Local cybercriminals target ATMs to obtain credit card and banking information, as well as portable point-of-sale systems to obtain the information stored in the magnetic strip of credit cards. Because this scheme requires access to payment hardware, insider access is usually involved. Cybersecurity companies often note that, while still vulnerable, chip-and-PIN cards are more secure and harder to clone than magnetic swipe cards. Be aware of the increased risk to credit and debit card information, and carefully monitor accounts for suspicious activity. Review OSAC’s reports, The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud and Taking Credit.

Cybersecurity Issues

Brazil is one of Latin America’s leading digital nations. Over 50% of Brazilians now are active internet users, and Brazilian financial institutions were early adopters of online services. Brazil remains among the most pervasive cybercrime environments worldwide. Brazilian cybercriminals are sophisticated and employ malware to steal billions of dollars annually, despite government efforts to stop malicious online activity. Hacktivists have defaced government websites and taken them offline in recent years. The domestic banking sector has historically been the primary target of these operations, and anecdotal information suggests insider access. Cybercrime in Brazil also affects daily Internet users, private-sector organizations, and short-term travelers. Scams involving credit cards are common. Travelers using personal ATM or credit cards sometimes discover that criminals had cloned or duplicated their cards without their knowledge. Maintain awareness of popular schemes to avoid becoming a cybercrime victim.

Review OSAC’s reports, Cybersecurity Basics, Best Practices for Maximizing Security on Public Wi-Fi, Traveling with Mobile Devices: Trends & Best Practices, and Satellite Phones: Critical or Contraband?

Transportation-Safety Situation

Road Safety and Road Conditions

Road conditions in Rio de Janeiro are similar to those found in large U.S. cities. Drivers in Rio de Janeiro should expect traffic congestion and delays at any time. Due to unique topography (mountain ranges surround the southern part of the city), tunnels cause multiple vehicular chokepoints throughout the city. Many drivers do not receive sufficient training, proper licensure, or insurance, which leads to stressful driving conditions at any given time.

Some major roadways run through or next to favelas, increasing the potential for violent crime to spill out onto the roadways, causing potentially significant traffic delays. Always drive defensively. Limit any overland travel beyond city limits to daylight hours. Road conditions outside of the main cities vary greatly. While traveling through rural areas, pay close attention to potholes and speed bumps. Lighting, traffic signals, and road markings vary from good to poor. Using tinted windows, rolling windows up, locking doors, and keeping valuables out of sight are the best recommendations against possible random criminal activity.

Some U.S. companies use armored passenger vehicles to transport visiting senior executives who they deem to be targets due to their high profile or high-value status.

Review OSAC’s reports, Road Safety Abroad, Driving Overseas: Best Practices, and Evasive Driving Techniques; and read the State Department’s webpage on driving and road safety abroad.

Public Transportation Conditions

Rio de Janeiro has a municipal bus system, taxis, and an underground railway system. While none is off limits to U.S. government employees, ride with caution to reduce the possibility of being a victim of crime, especially in the northern zone of the city.

Although buses are plentiful and generally keep to a regular schedule, avoid them whenever possible. Protests and demonstrations targeting the bus and mass transit systems often leave passengers vulnerable to violence; criminals have robbed buses or set them on fire while in transit.

The metro system is relatively efficient and keeps a regular schedule. However, it is often overcrowded, and there have been reports of citizens suffering loss of personal items and of individuals touching female riders inappropriately. The metro system offers and encourages using women-only rail cars during morning and evening rush hours on most operating lines.

While taxis are plentiful, there are still high rates of illegal/pirate taxis looking for potential targets of opportunity. Only use legitimate, well-marked taxis, which are yellow with a blue stripe and possess state-issued red livery license plates in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Local residents use informal minibuses to move from neighborhood to neighborhood in Rio, but visitors should avoid them; these vehicles have had numerous criminal issues, and are not regulated. Use taxis and private vehicles when moving within the city. Even while driving, motorists are vulnerable to armed bandits on motorcycles who prey on potential victims waiting at traffic lights or in traffic. Private car services (e.g. Uber) also provide a relatively safe option for travelers. Review OSAC’s report, Safety and Security in the Share Economy.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

Airports countrywide have inaugurated supplemental security measures, in part to thwart criminal activity targeting aviation facilities. Review OSAC’s report, Security In Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

Terrorism Threats

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Rio de Janeiro as being a LOW-threat location for terrorism directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.There are no known indigenous terrorist groups operating in Brazil. Brazil is a non-aligned country with no significant enemies, and is not a target of any known radical groups.

Though there are no known indigenous terrorist groups operating in Brazil, authorities arrested individuals who identified themselves as terrorist members or sympathizers in 2016 prior to and during the Olympic Games. Also during the Olympics, eco-terrorists planted a pressure cooker bomb at a major bus terminal in Brasília. Both incidents may have used the high profile of the Olympic Games to make their points, but were nevertheless the country’s first terrorism-related incidents in recent history. Concerns exist that individuals among the region’s extremist community have been engaged in facilitating transfers of money and people for terrorist organizations.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Civil Unrest

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Rio de Janeiro as being a MEDIUM-threat location for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Political violence in the form of protests occurs throughout Brazil, especially in major cities. These protests occur for various reasons, from poor work conditions and wages to public corruption or social inclusion. While protests are generally non-violent, some have escalated. In Rio de Janeiro, several protests over the past year have turned violent, resulting in property damage and minor injuries. Protests tend to increase in numbers and intensity during periods of political transition, the visits of high-profile foreigners, and major events. Usually, police control these demonstrations well, and marches proceed under local police escort. Avoid protests, as hostile protestors have infiltrated crowds for the purpose of confronting the police. Additionally, large gatherings are enticing targets for thieves and pickpockets. Review OSAC’s report, Surviving a Protest.

Economic conditions in Rio de Janeiro, coupled with a large-scale investigation into public corruption, have contributed to civil unrest, protests, and strikes as Brazil works to recover from its longest and deepest recession since the 1930s. In 2019, official unemployment reached 11.9%. This annual average rate is lower than 2018 (12.3%) and the lowest since 2016 (11.5%). The unemployment rate has dropped for two consecutive years.

Religious/Ethnic Violence

Brazil boasts a wide variety of ethnicities. Reports of violence within the state of Rio de Janeiro aimed at traditionally Afro-Brazilian religious practices remain a concern.

Anti-U.S. Sentiment

Most Brazilians regard U.S. nationals in a positive manner, and are friendly to foreigners.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Most natural disasters are not a major concern in Brazil, although significant flooding does occur during the rainy season. Flooding and associated mudslides are serious concerns in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

Major bodies of water within the city of Rio de Janeiro are extremely polluted. Tourist areas such as Lagoa, Ipanema, and Copacabana beaches, and Guanabara Bay all show extreme contamination.

Many of Brazil’s beaches have very dangerous riptides. Even if the water looks safe, ocean currents and waves are unpredictable, even in popular beaches that tourists frequent. Always observe posted warnings and never swim while under the influence of alcohol. Follow local authorities’ guidance and refrain from swimming alone in areas marked with red warning signs or at beaches where there are no municipal lifeguards or first responder services.

Critical Infrastructure Concerns

The Brazilian army is responsible for defending critical cyber infrastructure. Brazil’s Computer Emergency Response Team monitors and addresses general cyber security incidents. Given Brazil’s highly networked economy and the fact that authorities still are developing cyber doctrine and capabilities, analysts note continued critical infrastructure risks.

Economic Concerns/Intellectual Property Issues

The risk of economic espionage is not particularly high in Brazil, but other intellectual property rights (IPR) issues continue to challenge U.S. companies. Concerns also persist with respect to Brazil’s inadequate protection against unfair commercial use of undisclosed test and other data generated to obtain marketing approval for pharmaceutical products.

Brazil remained on the U.S. Trade Representative’s Special 301 Watch List in 2019 due to high levels of counterfeiting and piracy, including online piracy. Illicit goods enter Brazil over its extensive land and sea borders, with the tri-border area with Paraguay and Argentina a particular concern. Over the past year, Rio de Janeiro police have made significant efforts to combat sales of counterfeit and pirated goods at physical markets, with offenders more frequently referred for prosecution. Avoid street vendors selling knock-off designer products; by buying them you may face a large fine.

Incidents of cargo theft, both from overland shipments originating at ports of entry and from storage facilities, occur frequently. Brazil’s rate of cargo theft is among the highest in the region, and of particular concern in Rio de Janeiro. Criminals target all commercial goods, although shipments of petroleum, pharmaceuticals, and mobile electronics are especially lucrative. Review OSAC’s Report, In-Transit Cargo Theft in Brazil.

Personal Identity Concerns

The law prohibits racial discrimination, specifically the denial of public or private facilities, employment, or housing, to anyone based on race. It also prohibits the incitement of racial discrimination or prejudice and the dissemination of racially offensive symbols and epithets and stipulates prison terms for such acts. The 2010 census reported that, for the first time, more than 50% of the population identified themselves as belonging to categories other than white. Despite laws and a high representation within the general population, darker-skinned citizens, particularly Afro-Brazilians, frequently encounter discrimination and are underrepresented in national government positions.

Brazil’s federal law now prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. Enforcement, however, is weak, and violence against LGBTI+ persons still occurs regularly, particularly against the transgender community. According to the 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, violence against LGBTI individuals remains a serious concern nationwide. There were 141 killings of LGBTI individuals in the first 135 days of 2019. Transgender individuals were particularly at risk; there were 163 killings of transgender persons nationwide in 2018, and police arrested suspects in only 9% of the cases. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for LGBTI+ travelers.

The law also 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. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for travelers with disabilities.

Drug-related Crimes

Most drug-related crimes involve the illicit drug trade and those persons addicted to illicit drugs. Street assaults, robberies, burglaries, and other criminal activity generate proceeds to support their addictions. Brazil is the number two consumer of cocaine in the world, behind the United States. Brazil is the world’s largest consumer of crack cocaine.

Kidnapping Threat

While kidnappings for ransom in Rio are less common than other violent crimes, these incidents do occur. One tactic of organized gangs is to target individuals observed withdrawing money from ATMs or exiting banks after making a withdrawal. These gangs frequently operate in teams.

Another version of this is express kidnapping, an ongoing criminal activity in which kidnappers take ATM users at gunpoint and take them to several ATMs to withdraw cash. While Brazilians are the most frequent targets, all foreigners are vulnerable to this crime. Using ATMs located in secure locations such as shopping malls or major hotels reduce the chances of criminal targeting. Review OSAC’s report, Kidnapping: The Basics.

Other Issues

Brazilian customs authorities may enforce strict regulations concerning temporarily importing or exporting items such as firearms, antiquities, mineral samples, tropical plants, wildlife, medications, and business and communication equipment. Read the State Department’s webpage on customs and import restrictions for information on what you cannot take into or out of other countries.

Police Response

The emergency line is 197 for Civil Police, 194 for Federal Police, and 190 for Military Police. Police response varies greatly. Police officials frequently cite a lack of resources, staffing shortages, lack of basic equipment, and low morale as reasons for widely varying response times and unsolved crime. Police labor unions advocate and occasionally organize strikes that result in absences of police personnel in key areas.

Police-involved shootings resulted in over 1,800 civilian deaths in the state of Rio de Janeiro over the past year (highest rates since 1991).

Law enforcement entities continue to look for creative policing strategies to overcome financial and infrastructure challenges to crime prevention, such as community policing, officers on motorcycles, and extensive implementation of surveillance cameras. Recent implementation of “Operation Presence” to increase the overt law enforcement presence in certain heavily populated areas of the city has yielded some positive results. This increase in overt policing has succeeded due to substantial funding by the local Brazilian private sector and has expanded to more Rio de Janeiro neighborhoods.

Police/Security Agencies

The Military Police of the State of Rio de Janeiro have their own formations, rules, and uniforms, and are responsible for maintaining public order across the state. Polícia Militar is the country’s military police and is not associated with the Brazilian Armed Forces; they are the Brazilian equivalent of U.S. uniformed state police officers. Deployed solely to respond to or act as a deterrent against the commission of crime, these units do not conduct criminal investigations.

The Civil Police (Polícia Civil) acts as the state bureau of investigation. Each state has its own Civil Police Department to undertake detective work, forensics, prosecutions, and internal investigation, while the Military Police performs preventive police duties.

The Federal Police (Polícia Federal or DPF) are responsible for crimes against federal institutions, to include international drug trafficking, terrorism, cyber-crime, organized crime, public corruption, white-collar crime, money laundering, immigration, border control, airport security, and maritime policing. DPF is subordinate to the federal Justice Ministry.

Medical Emergencies

The medical emergency line is 192. For fire emergencies or sea rescue, call 193. Medical care is adequate at private clinics, where you need to pay cash in advance for medical care. Public hospitals provide a lower standard of care and are often overcrowded and understaffed, but they generally do not require pre-payment and are experienced at dealing with medical emergencies, including trauma injuries. Find contact information for available medical services and available air ambulance services on the Consulate’s Medical Assistance page.

Bring prescription medicine sufficient for the length of your stay, be aware that Brazil's humid climate may affect some medicines. Some prescription medicines (mainly generic) are available.

The U.S. Department of State strongly recommends purchasing international health insurance before traveling internationally. Review the State Department’s webpage on insurance overseas.

Brazil is experiencing an ongoing threat of mosquito borne illnesses, and has indicated that it will continue to work toward mitigating the threat in 2020. For information on mosquito mitigation, review OSAC’s report, What’s Bugging Your Staff: Mosquito-borne Diseases - Mitigation Tactics.

Mosquito-borne viral infection is a significant health risk throughout Brazil. Such infections include chikungunya, dengue fever, yellow fever, malaria, and Zika. While chikungunya and dengue fever have become endemic countrywide, yellow fever and malaria are more prevalent in the non-urban areas. There are no prophylactic therapies for dengue and chikungunya. The most prudent strategy is to prevent mosquito bites through repellants, treated bed nets, window screens and air-conditioning.

All U.S. government personnel obtain yellow fever vaccination prior to travel to Brazil. Travelers should carry a documented yellow fever card.

The CDC has issued a Level 2 travel alert for countries affected by the Zika virus. Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that causes flu-like symptoms (e.g. fever, headache, joint pain, rash) for two to seven days. Because of concerns about an association of Zika virus infection during pregnancy with microcephaly, a congenital brain deformity, pregnant women and those who may become pregnant may want to avoid unnecessary travel to the region or special precautions.

Incidences of water-borne diseases increase during periods of flooding. Only consume bottled or purified water, and take special precautions when eating fruits and vegetables, especially during the rainy seasons.

Leptospirosis, while not common, is a bacterial infection spread via rodent droppings and waste. Given the limitations of the sanitation system in non-urban areas of Brazil, exercise caution including vigilant hand washing after outdoor contact, and vaccinate pets that may contract the disease from food bowls and other exposed surfaces rodents may traverse. Early manifestations of the disease present a flu-like symptoms.

Pay special attention to HIV/AIDS prevention. In addition to elevated infection rates among high-risk populations such as commercial sex workers and mobile populations such as miners or loggers, World Health Organization data shows that Brazil has among the highest prevalence HIV rates in Latin America and the Caribbean. WHO recommends preventive sexual practices to include of use of condoms.

Several U.S. citizens have died while seeking medical care from non-traditional “healers” and practitioners. Ensure you have access to proper medical care if seeking such services.

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

Review OSAC’s reports, The Healthy Way, Traveling with Medication, I’m Drinking What in My Water?, Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad, Health 101: How to Prepare for Travel, and Fire Safety Abroad.

OSAC Country Council Information

The Rio de Janeiro Country Council is one of several OSAC groups in Brazil. It meets quarterly and has approximately 50 members. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s Latin America team with any questions or to join.

U.S. Consulate Contact Information

Avenida Presidente Wilson, 147, Castelo.

Switchboard: +55 (21) 3823-2000

After-hour emergencies: +55 (21) 3823-2029

Regional Security Officer: +55 (21) 3823-2908 

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

Other U.S. Diplomatic Posts in Brazil

Helpful Information

Before you travel, consider the following resources:

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