As someone who lives in Brazil, and writes about Brazil, one of the most frequent questions I get from non-Brazilians is “How safe is it?” I’m always stumped as to how to answer this question. Rather, I’m stumped as to how to offer a succinct and simple answer.

There is a lot more to Brazil than violence and I would hate to dissuade anyone from visiting by stoking fears and doubts.Security is an issue in Brazil. In fact, it’s one of the biggest issues in Brazil. And while people can argue that crimes happen everywhere (I’m a firm believer that they do), there’s no denying that security issues take on a whole other dimension in Brazil. No matter how you slice it, you have to be a lot more careful in Brazil than you do in North America.

Although I deal at great length with safety in my books, Moon Brazil and Moon Rio, I am always a little loath to blog about specific incidents pertaining to criminality that I experience as part of my day-to-day life living in Brazil.

There is a lot more to Brazil than violence and I would hate to dissuade anyone from visiting by stoking fears and doubts. The truth is that while, statistically, robberies, kidnappings, killings, etc., are high when compared to North America, one always has to contextualize. Much violent crime in Brazil is drug-related. A lot of it takes place in poor neighborhoods and favelas that very few tourists will ever be visiting. There are also safety issues that affect people who live in Brazil (such as me), but which probably wouldn’t be issues for travelers staying in hotels, unencumbered with the baggage of day-to-day life, who are just passing through.

Living in Brazil is surreal in that while being aware of all the risks and dangers, you somehow end up “normalizing” them. You try to go about your day-to-day life in a completely “normal” fashion (and often succeed), while conscious of the fact that many seemingly innocent things – putting your bag down on the empty chair next to you at an outdoor bar; taking money to the beach; walking around many streets after dark – are invitations to trouble.

Without becoming paranoid, you incorporate new precautions into your regime – giving your bag to a friend when you go to the bathroom; carrying only enough money for food and drinks to the beach; taking cabs after dark (even for distances you could easily walk).

These “precautions” become second nature. The only times I ever really stop and think about them are:

  • when I return to Brazil from a long trip to North America and feel the loss of “freedom” acutely (before I once again normalize that as well).
  • when Something Big Happens that hits close to home.
A Brazilian police car marked Policia Civil parked on the street.

Police car in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Cyro A. Silva licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

This week Something Big Happened.

Strangely, issues of safety were already on my brain. I had just finished wrapping up a radio interview for a travel program, Around the World in 60 Minutes, during which I was talking about the release of the latest edition of Moon Brazil. One of the questions host Louie Thiele asked me was about safety (specifically, in terms of visiting Rio de Janeiro). In the brief amount of time I’d had to answer, I had tried to straddle the fine line between exercising caution and pointing out that, due to a combination of aggressive public initiatives and stepped-up police presence, much of Rio’s Centro and Zona Sul (where tourists hang out) are relatively safer than they used to be.

Afterwards, I was mulling over my answer, (and contemplating the fact that I hadn’t mentioned that while crime stats were down in Rio, they were way up in Salvador and other cities of the Northeast), when a very close friend of mine called asking if I wanted to go and have a beer to celebrate the fact that he and his 7-year-old daughter were alive.

At first I didn’t get it. But then he told me that he had gone to pick up his daughter at her private school after her circus class. It was 7:30 pm, on a busy street, and parents and kids were streaming out of the building and into their respective cars. My friend and his daughter got into their car – and then so did a young man with a gun who informed my friend that he wanted his car.

Noting that the young man with the gun was seemingly calm (i.e. mercifully not on crack), my friend responded with amazing tranquility. Without missing a beat, he explained to his puzzled daughter that the sudden stranger was a mechanic who was just going to borrow the car. He then quickly, but tranquilly, succeeded in handing over his cell phone and extricating himself and his daughter from the vehicle.

He thanked his lucky stars that other parents and children (who were watching this all go down) did not attempt to make any kind of move that could have provoked the thief into doing something rash and violent. He thanked his lucky stars that the thief had not decided to kidnap them (a common occurrence) and drive around town withdrawing money from various ATMs only to leave them stranded in some abandoned place. He thanked his lucky stars that he and his daughter were alive.

Some things you can’t avoid and some things you can’t normalize. Maybe the best thing you can do is celebrate, which is what my friend decided to do.Later, I found out that the thieves were probably watching the school. They knew that circus classes were held Thursday after school, and that the two security guards hired to watch over the school during the day would be off-duty. I also found out that thieves steal cars not for the cars themselves, but so they can drive around and commit other crimes before ripping out the most valuable parts and selling them (usually getting around R$300). Amazing that lives can be put at risk for R$300 (around US$165).

When Something Big like this happens, it’s impossible to “normalize” – even though sometime it seems as if things like this happen all the time. In my small, immediate circle, this is the fourth “event” of the summer. One night in December, a thief climbed into a friend’s 5th floor apartment (and practically over his sleeping body), stole three laptop computers, and left through the front door. In January, my downstairs neighbor and his 70-year-old mother were held up at gunpoint at 7 pm in the driveway of my building (on a busy street) as they were unloading groceries from their car, which was stolen. In February, a friend’s cousin was murdered (this was apparently drug-related).

The night I went to comfort my shell-shocked friend, there were a few of us sitting around the bar table, and it turned out that none of us are really as successful at “normalizing” as we thought. On a daily basis, we all make concessions, gauge situations, measure risks, edit our lives to avoid the increasingly unavoidable, but it’s only when Something Big Happens that we allow ourselves to become conscious of these mental manoeuvers.

One friend admits to setting booby traps in his apartment. Another admitted to taking different routes on his daily walks to work so that nobody can “track” his habits. I confessed that I never go to an 8 pm movie at the theater five minutes from my apartment because it’s too risky for me to take the quick, but deserted route home at 10 pm (I stubbornly refuse to take a taxi for such an absurdly short distance).

I told my sister in New York what happened to my friend and his daughter. When she warned me to be careful, I pointed out that I already am careful.

I told my mother in Toronto what happened to my friend and his daughter. When she suggested that I move to another (safer) city, I told her that Salvador isn’t the only city with safety issues in Brazil.

Some things you can’t avoid and some things you can’t normalize. Maybe the best thing you can do is celebrate, which is what my friend decided to do.

On Friday, he threw a big bash at his house to commemorate his and his daughter’s “birthdays.” He wasn’t referring to the dates on which they were born, but to the day on which they were both “(re)born” (i.e. survived). He invited all his daughters’ friends from school and their parents, and cooked up a fabulous feast. While the kids ran around playing, the adults ate, drank, laughed and swapped stories about robberies, kidnappings, hold-ups and carjackings. It sounds kind of morbid, but it was actually cathartic and caring and – in an indelibly Brazilian way – strangely lighthearted and fun.

Next week, things should start getting back to “normal.”

Update: Two days after the robbery, the police discovered the abandoned car in a neighborhood across the city (although it took them 5 days to communicate this to my friend). The car was in perfect condition and nothing (media player, CDs, knapsacks, etc.) was missing except the car registration documents.

The video with this article features MV Bill, one of Brazil’s most renowned rappers, performing his song “Cidadão Comum Refém” (literal translation: “Common Citizen Hostage”