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Brazzil - Crime - June 2003

Safety in Rio: Don't Trust the Statistics

Rio de Janeiro is a big city with a big crime problem. How bad or not that
problem is a matter of individual opinion. If you go looking for sleaze,
expect to find it. And don't assume that just because things work one way
in your hometown that they work the same way in a foreign city.

Thaddeus Blanchette


There's been quite a lot of recent discussion regarding how unsafe the city of Rio de Janeiro is, exactly.

I'd like to take a moment now to get you all to think about what you mean when you talk so blandly and knowingly about the comparative safety of this city or that. For it seems to me that meaningful discussion about such a topic is precluded by the fact that we have no meaningful means by which to compare "crime" between one place and another.

Common sense has it that while one may encounter crime in any major city of the world, "statistically" it's a lot more likely that it will raise its ugly face in Rio de Janeiro than, say, Los Angeles.


The first thing we need to ask ourselves is how these statistics are constructed. While the common measure of a city's safety is taken to be the number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants, this apparently solid number is frequently based on smoke and mirrors.

The first thing that can be used to call the murder rate into account is what is considered part of a city and what is not. When speaking of Los Angeles, do we count the entire county and outlying communities (frequently economically depressed, underpoliced ghettoes) or do we stick to Los Angeles proper? In the case of Rio, do we count the residents of the shantytowns and proletarian suburbs of the Baixada Fluminense or do we hold to the population within the city limits? It doesn't take a genius to realize that the "murders per 100,000" statistic will be drastically different in both cases.

Another factor this supposedly "hard statistic" fails to take into consideration is what, exactly, is considered a murder. Certain crimes that are homicides in the States are manslaughter in Brazil and vice-versa. Furthermore, some crimes which are considered to be murders in both countries have a higher statistical incidence in Brazilian cities for solid infrastructural reasons. Take "hit and run" accidents resulting in death: both countries treat these as murders, but one quick look at Rio's lack of traffic signaling and overall chaotic street plan will show any unbiased observer two of the reasons why "hit and run" deaths (classified as murders) are higher in Rio than in, say, Detroit.

The third and final factor safety statistics ignore is relative distribution of crime within the city. A city could have a neighborhood where 10 people are killed a night in firefights while the rest of the town is relatively calm. This would no doubt result in a rather high "murders per 100,000 residents" statistic. Does that make the city as a whole dangerous? Not necessarily.

Ignoring statistics as "academic bullshit" many people go straight to the meat of the matter by citing their anecdotal evidence of carioca crime. Typical are the claims of someone who, while promenading one night along the beach in Copacabana, was mugged. Other typical stories are those involving people who've seen absolutely horrible violence and then claim that cariocas didn't react to it.

While not wishing to downplay anyone's negative experiences in Rio (Lord knows that there are enough of them to be had), these kinds of stories usually do not move me. In the case of the muggings, the victim's presumption is usually that they should be safe in the relatively rich South Zone of the city. The fact that they weren't indicates to them that crime is widespread. Point in fact: Copacabana is one of the worst carioca neighborhoods for crime. Gringos go there because of half-remembered memories of 1950s Carmen Miranda flicks, expecting a romantic atmosphere. Little do they know—or care—that Copa has turned into one of Rio's biggest open-air sewers for vice and scam operations of all kinds. Furthermore, criminals know where the tourons go and tend to congregate there. For these reasons, stories of muggings in Copa and Ipanema don't impress me much as to the city's supposedly high level of violence. I've repeatedly stated that, for all its supposed safety, I feel more exposed in the rich south zone than I do in Santa Teresa (knock on wood). People seem to think this is bluster—it's not. It's a reasonable measure of risk on my part.

Rio Stories

Likewise, stories of Carioca indifference to violence don't move me much. It is in the nature of residents of big cities to be a bit blasé regarding urban violence. In this, Cariocas aren't much different than anyone else. However, often the gringo recounting the story isn't able to perceive that his expectations as to "how things work", brought from home, don't necessarily cross over into Rio.

For example, I recently met a photojournalist who was planning to start a story with an observation he made one night at Help. Apparently, one of the girls working the crowd had a bad reaction to the drugs she took and started lashing out at passerby. Some other prostitutes held her down until she broke loose and tried to drown herself in the ocean. The other girls dragged her out and she started attacking them again. My journalist friend then ran to what he assumed was a passing police car and tried to get help in his next-to-non-existent Portuguese.

"My God!" he said, telling me the story a few days later. "The cops didn't even stop. They nodded their heads at me and sped off!"

"Uh huh. So what kind of cops were they? PMs (Polícia Militar)?" I asked.

"No. They were those guys in the brown uniforms who drive around in those yellow striped cars marked "transit" something."

In order to stop a drug-induced brawl between prostitutes, my journalist friend had attempted to enlist the aid of Rio's "meter maids": unarmed transit authorities whose principal job is to ticket improperly parked cars and who have absolutely no right and/or ability to arrest anyone. To him, these poor souls were simply "cops". After all, they had a little siren on top of their vehicle and were dressed in military style uniforms right? When I pointed this out to him, he grumbled about how "anti-logical" this was, even though I don't suppose that meter maids in his home city of Los Angeles would involve themselves in a similar situation.

The whole idea that this represented Rio as a whole was ludicrous anyway. The guy was out in front of Help on a Friday night, for Pete's sake. What would he expect to see on the Hollywood strip? Nevertheless. He'll probably publish his article and it will become part of the wealth of received wisdom Anglo-Americans can draw upon when researching a trip to Rio. More likely than not, someone will be quoting this story back to me within six months as something that happened to a "friend" of his.

Moral of the story: if you go looking for sleaze, expect to find it. If you don't want to deal with it, then for God's sake, don't hang out in the Red Light district, trying to convince yourself you're in some sort of deserted tropical paradise. That's a sure recipe for disaster. And don't assume that just because things work one way in your hometown that they work the same way in a foreign city.

A Way to Get Status

Finally, the third "proof" of a city's essential violence that's typically trotted out is native testimony. Again, without wanting to downplay anybody's horror stories, it's common knowledge among long-term residents of Rio de Janeiro that the city is not half as violent as some Cariocas claim it to be. Why do relatively wealthy Cariocas claim that their city is so horridly dangerous? Many people I know are so terrified of violence that they refuse even to ride on the city transit system—something I and millions of other Cariocas daily do without qualms. How to understand the kind of remark that "Rio is the most dangerous city in the world" made by a successful, 30-something computer graphics designer?

To start off with, to claim that one is too terrified to ride a city bus is a `round about way of claiming that one doesn't have to ride the city bus. By casually letting this bon mot drop in polite cocktail conversation, the Carioca in question signifies that a) s/he has access to a private car and/or funds to use taxis, everyday, and b) s/he's one of the "good" people, those whose financial position put them at high risk of being a target for a mugging. A pretty nice, economical, way of indicating one's social status if you ask me, without the risk of looking like a braggart or a bore to boot!

Even in those cases where a Carioca has had first-hand contact with violent crime, paranoia is not the logical follow-through. My friend's dad was shot in a burglary of his drugstore two years ago. He still goes to work behind his counter, everyday, and though he complains about the city's violence, it doesn't seem to have slowed him down much.

So what do we do with all of this?

First of all, let me suggest that discussions about which city is violent or safe are just so much pissing in the wind. What travelers need to know is what, exactly, in a given city is safe and what is not and why. As someone once remarked, even Salt Lake City, Utah, has a seedy side to it. Usually travelers wish to avoid this side.

Secondly, at the base of every stereotype there's a grain of truth. Yes, Rio de Janeiro is a big city with a big crime problem. However, how bad or not that problem is a matter of individual opinion, and we all know what that means. There is no scientific—or even reasonably exact—way of addressing Rio's relative degree of "safety".

Finally, this all brings me to a question I've been pondering for awhile: why, with so much concern expressed about safety by travelers, do so many of them insist on staying in and frequenting the nightlife of one of Rio's worst districts? It's almost as if, having made up their mind that Brazil is a cesspool of carnality, violence and desperate poverty, these people then go out of their way to expose themselves to just that side of Brazil. Then, when Brazilians and more balanced gringos claim that Brazil is not exactly like that, we're accused of being nationalistically blind to our country's "evil" side. (As if one could avoid looking at it...)

It seems to me that more often than not, people travel to Brazil to confirm their prejudices rather than to learn new things.


Thaddeus Blanchette is a 35 year old immigrant to Brazil who has been living in and studying the country most of his adult life. He can be reached at poboxthad@yahoo.com.br





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