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Overseas Security Advisory Council
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Brazil 2020 Crime & Safety Report: São Paulo

This is an annual report produced in conjunction with the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Consulate General in São Paulo. OSAC encourages travelers to use this report to gain baseline knowledge of security conditions in Brazil’s largest city. 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 Threats

The U.S. Department of State has assessed São Paulo as being a CRITICAL-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Crime continues to be a significant concern for visitors to 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.  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. Review OSAC’s report, All That You Should Leave Behind.

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. According to São Paulo’s Secretaria de Segurança, there were 128,746 robberies and 209,619 thefts in general (excluding vehicles) between January and November 2019 in São Paulo City.

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. Nefarious actors may add scopolamine or a similar drug to your drink. Victims have awoken robbed of possessions and/or sexually assaulted after accepting open drinks. 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. Review OSAC’s reports, Hotels: The Inns and Outs and Considerations for Hotel Security.

Organized crime exists on a large scale. The largest Brazilian criminal organization, Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Capital Command, 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 each 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.

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 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.

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. Review OSAC’s reports, The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud, Taking Credit, 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 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. 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 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.

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.

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

São Paulo has an extensive bus and metro system, as well as taxi services. While none are off-limits for U.S. government employees, 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 pickpockets or robberies, and individuals groping/touching female riders inappropriately.

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. Refrain from getting in a vehicle with other passengers, and object to picking up other individuals along your route. 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). They are generally safe, particularly within their secure areas. Reports of crime against travelers along the road to the airport occur frequently; criminals exploit congested traffic conditions and look to identify potential targets of wealth and affluence as they arrive and depart. In 2019, there were several media reports of baggage theft while checking in or waiting for taxis upon exiting the airport. Be wary of strangers who strike up conversation because it could be one of a two-man team, one leading your attention away from your bag or suitcase, and the other making off with it. Review OSAC’s report, Security In Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

Terrorism Threat

The U.S. Department of State has assessed São Paulo as being a LOW-threat location for terrorism directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Brazil is a non-aligned country with no significant enemies, and is not a target of any known international radical groups. Though there are no known indigenous terrorist groups operating in Brazil, a number of al-Qa’ida 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

The U.S. Department of State has assessed São Paulo as being a MEDIUM-threat location for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. 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 occur. 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. Review OSAC’s report, Surviving a Protest.

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 2019, Sao Paulo continued to see threats of strikes originating from the public transportation, petroleum, mail carriers and education industries throughout the year.

Anti-U.S. Sentiment

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

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Flooding is a nationwide problem that has plagued São Paulo state and many other parts of the country. Over the last several years, severe rainstorms have occurred regularly, flooded parts of São Paulo, killing people, and destroying homes and transport infrastructure. Intense rain also causes severe gridlock.

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.

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 is clear and sanitized. The city’s underground rail system has also experienced mishaps, including electrical outages and train stoppages.

Economic Concerns

Cargo theft remains a major security issue on the roads throughout Brazil. As a result, many companies employ countermeasures, including armed security escorts for high value loads and the use of satellites to track truck movements. Review OSAC’s Report, In-Transit Cargo Theft in Brazil.

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.

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%.  In 2018, authorities seized 880 tons of goods from the Shopping 25 de Marco market in São Paulo, and the city placed the market on probation. Avoid street vendors selling knock-off designer products; by buying them you may face a large fine.

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.

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. Some U.S. citizens have reported being the target of comments/actions, and even violence, because of their nationality, race, or sexual orientation.

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

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 the world’s largest consumer of crack cocaine.

Kidnapping Threat

At times, armed robbers take victims at gunpoint to several ATMs to withdraw cash. While the victims are most often Brazilian, 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 involving U.S. citizens is rare. Regardless, 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.

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, and 911 for Military Police. 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 low due to perception of heavy handedness, ineffectiveness, and corruption.

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 Country Council in São Paulo is active, meeting on a monthly basis. U.S. private-sector security managers should contact the RSO in São Paulo for specific inquiries concerning the local security situation. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s Latin America team with any questions or to join. 

U.S. Consulate Contact Information

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

Switchboard: +55 (11) 3250-5000

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

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

Other U.S. Diplomatic Posts in Brazil

Helpful Information

Before you travel, consider the following resources:

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