By Sarah de Sainte Croix, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – Rio’s reputation for violent crime precedes it. Films such as ‘City of God’ and ‘Tropa de Elite’ (Elite Troop) have only compounded this image in the eyes of the world, and the city is frequently cited as one of the most dangerous places on earth. When looking to uncover the statistics behind the claims however, the waters are somewhat muddy.

Armed Forces occupy city center in Rio de Janeiro, photo by Agência Brasil/ Wikimedia Creative Commons License.

A quick Google search for ‘the world’s most dangerous cities’ turns up a number of lists based on unofficial and incomplete information. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime fails to include Brazil in its most recent available crime trend statistics, but it does list the number of homicides in the country in 2008 at 22 per 100,000 population, making it only the sixth most murderous country in Latin America, falling in well below both Venezuela and Colombia who scored 52 and 38.8 respectively.

Within Rio de Janeiro itself, public opinion is divided over the state of security. It depends heavily upon who you ask as to how safe you might imagine yourself to be in the city. Those with a vested interest in improving the image of Rio in the eyes of foreigners, like tour operators and investment agents, tend to claim that the city is getting safer. On the other hand, stories of theft and assault are rife amongst the backpacking communities in Copacabana and Ipanema, with this year’s Carnival once again provoking a wave of tourist-targeted crime and hostel-storming.

Rio's heavily armed police presence, photo by Andre Farias/Flickr Creative Commons License.

The Government’s official Olympic proposal outlines twelve key initiatives designed to improve security in Rio in advance of the 2016 games. Most of these focus on improving training and structure within the police force, but they also promise to increase the military police headcount and expand CCTV systems within the metropolitan area.

In addition to this, the proposal talks about, “significant community based crime reduction strategies such as the PRONASCI program,” (an US$3.35 billion Federal Government homicide prevention project,) but fails to mention any others.

The proposal also highlights new laws introduced in 2003 which tightened the restrictions on the private ownership of firearms, stating that the changes have led to, “A considerable reduction in gun-related crime.”

The statistics show a mixed story. According to the most recent data available from the Instituto de Segurança Pública (Institute of Public Security) or ISP, the total number of homicides in metropolitan Rio was up by 86 from 2,069 in 2008, to 2,155 in 2009.

Attempted murder and actual bodily harm were also up by 24.13 percent and 8.41 percent respectively, and reported incidences of rape rose by an alarming 38.53 percent. Thefts on the other hand, showed a general decrease.

The reality is that many tourists go home with a story to tell, more often than not, one of petty theft. Copacabana remains a hot-spot for tourist-targeted crime and vigilance and awareness should be top priorities for any visitor exploring the city.


  1. The official figures on homicides seems lower than what we might expect. Query whether they include persons (all officially deemed “bandidos”) killed by the police during their raids on favelas.

  2. The problem is that in Rio newspapers prefer to highlight the bad things that happen here. Even in Brazil, Rio is not the most dangerous city. We have our violence problems, like every town, but our good things you will not find anywhere else. This is the real Rio, but it will not be put on the cover of the magazines and newspapers. You must come and see for your own. ;-)

  3. I have lived in Rio for many years. I have also lived in a number of large U.S. cities and in Paris. In Rio, the quality of life is severely impacted by the perceived threat of crime. Cariocas have become so used to the prospect of getting mugged, their cars stolen, etc., that they take special measures. Parents make sure that their children always have some money in their pockets “for the theif”. Drivers never leave their cars windows open, and very dark window glass is often purchased as standard equipment so that car highjackers can´t see who is inside the car. At night, nobody stops at red lights. You merely slow down, look both ways, maybe honk, and keep on going. In a get together of Rio residents, if you ask who has been mugged or robbed, everyone will have an experience to tell. It is just a normal part of life. It is also normal as well to hear the noise of gun battles taking place in the favelas. Rio is a hilly place, and the hills are covered with slums. In their turf wars, in the slums, the drug traffickers use heavy weapons that are “supposedly” reserved for the military and the police. But corruption is so rampant that there is a huge black market for weapons. The population does not trust the police. The typical policeman lives himself in a low-income neighborhood, receives a small salary, and is easily bribed.
    All of this is in stark contrast to daily life in the United States and in Europe. So don´t let the beaches and Sugar Loaf fool you. Anyone visiting Rio is taking a very big risk. The crime statistics can´t be trusted because normally, muggings are simply not reported because Brazilians figure that the police will do nothing, so why bother? Rio is a bit like a woman who appears to be beautiful at a distance, but the closer you get to her, the more ugly she becomes. My family situation makes me stay here, but I certainly wouldn´t voluntarily come to Rio. So, my friends. be very, very, careful.


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