With nearly 60,000 a year there’s no debating that Brazil is a very dangerous country and São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest capital city, is no stranger to violent crime. With more than 20 million people (if one counts the greater metropolitan area) it´s natural for someone to feel uneasy and have safety concerns when first arriving in the city.
So what can a traveller or a new resident do?
The bad news is that in many ways one can’t do much to prepare or predict how or when crime is going to occur in São Paulo. An incident can spark off anywhere and at any time At the end of this article, I will talk about possible ways to react during a criminal act.
The good news is that although São Paulo leads Brazilian cities in homicides in absolute numbers, it actually drops off the list of dangerous cities when one considers per-capita murders. Also, homicide rates have had a downward trend here in the big city, reaching a record one digit number.
So yes, if that is of any consolation, chances of being killed in São Paulo are not as high as in other places around Brazil. Unfortunately, other types of crimes such as rape, robbery, and theft have seen a sharp increase in the last few years.
With that reality in mind, here are some practical tips from someone who has lived in and been around much of São Paulo for a while and has experienced both its highs and lows.
1. RELAX A BIT AND ENJOY THE CONCRETE
I don’t like to sugar coat the living experience in the city, but the fact is that statistically speaking you are safer in São Paulo than in most other regions of the county, so don’t let the crime rates scare you off. Although crime can and does happen anywhere, it’s more apt to happen in certain dodgier areas in the suburbs of São Paulo.
If you walk around São Paulo like someone is going to jump out of a bush and put you in a sack, chances are you are going to attract criminals. This is not some, “The Secret” or “Law of Attraction,” type of advice, it´s simply the honest truth – criminals like easy prey: don’t play the part of one and make it easier for them.
If at first you feel unsure about tackling the city alone then go out with a friend or group of friends. Enjoy your time out and get to know your surroundings. On top of that, always walk with your head high and with an air of assurance. Don´t be a victim before someone tries to make you one.
2. BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS
São Paulo’s poor and rich are mostly segregated. There are but a few examples, like the Paraisópolis favela in the heart of the very rich Morumbi neighbourhood, where the poor interact directly and daily with the upper classes. And even still, in places like Morumbi, residents manage to keep themselves separate enough to mark a noticeable difference between social class and neighbourhood conditions.
What this means is that if you are in an area that looks sketchy, you will most likely realize so before it gets to be too sketchy. Pay attention to the quality of the roads and houses as you wander about. Look for deprecated walls, accumulated rubbish on the streets, and the all around look of a place to tip you off that you may be entering a more complicated area.
One clear example of this is the popular night-time hangout, Avenida Augusta. The first section of the strip, which is close to Avenida Paulista (São Paulo’s main economic centre) is relatively nicer. However, as one slowly makes their way down Ave. Augusta towards Center City the landscape changes and it gets grittier and rougher around the edges. The touristy area at the top of the street (lined with bars and restaurants) turns into a red light district called “Baixa Augusta” (Lower Augusta) with whore houses and dubious nightclubs on each block.
This is not to say you can´t have fun in this or other less posh areas of São Paulo, but it matters to know where you are and how you got there. Pay attention when walking so that you’ll notice the shift before you are in the lion’s den.
Here´s a tip about where Baixa Augusta starts by the way – it’s after the gas station on your right.
3. DRESS APPROPRIATELY FOR THE LOCATION
Before you move to São Paulo find out about the city and its different neighbourhoods and districts. Every neighbourhood and district, or “zona” (zone), is quite different than the other. Knowing how people interact, dress, play, and get around is of key importance with fitting in and staying safe.
In Brazil, crime is mostly committed on an “I want what you have” basis. If you are moving into (or visiting) a poorer or middle-class area then don’t wear those designer shirts all the time – you are telegraphing your social status to every bandit in the region.
This doesn’t mean you have to walk around like a bum. São Paulo likes to think of itself as a chic city (rightly or wrongly) so even the bandits will be dressed reasonably well. I had a friend who was mugged in one of the city’s large business districts (an area called Berrini) by a guy on a motorcycle wearing a suit and tie. You’d be surprised how even in the favelas, Paulistanos (what the residents of São Paulo are called), do their best to look their best.
So take a moment to look around and fit into your surroundings because every area of the city has its own style. You don´t have to trade in your sneakers for a pair of sandals but designers tags and expensive sports watches aren’t necessary everywhere you go.
4. LEARN SOME PORTUGUESE
This should go without saying – the more you know about what people are saying (and especially about you) the safer you will be.
Portuguese is not the easiest language for some foreigners, but if you had some basic Spanish as a kid or have been around or speak other romance languages, you may be able to pick up the basics pretty quickly.
Not only bandits but shop owners and merchants, love to target foreigners who haven’t a clue as to what is going on around them. In this respect being in São Paulo is no different than being in many foreign countries – but Brazilians, in general, are infamous for their “malandros” (tricksters) who will waste no time in trying to get one over on someone who makes themselves an easy target for a scam or worse.
5. WATCH YOUR BELONGINGS
São Paulo is not a city where you can lackadaisically pull out your mobile device in the middle of the street to check messages or make sure Google Maps is taking you in the right direction. If I have to go somewhere new, I check the directions on my computer and take a picture of the screen to check quickly on my phone later. And unless I am completely confident about my surroundings, when I do check my messages, I make sure to look around and hold my phone with both hands near my chest or my lap if I am sitting down.
Many areas of São Paulo are too crowded and don’t offer quick and easy escape routes for traditional armed muggers. Although this means that you may avert having a weapon pointed at you, there are a lot of snatch and run incidents to compensate – not to mention the unavoidable pickpockets.
All it takes is a moment of distraction looking in another direction while your phone is your dangling in your hand for a kid to come dashing by on their bike and take that phone with them. Surely this is less traumatic than an armed mugging, but it is a pain nonetheless.
Like in any big city, keep your wits about you and your eyes open and depending on the area, be extra wary.
6. DON´T GO ALONE IF YOU DON´T HAVE TO
After a while, getting around alone in the city won’t feel like a major undertaking. I have friends of all ages, sexes, and builds who go just about everywhere in São Paulo by themselves. But at first, it’s always good to have a travel companion – especially at night.
Criminals are looking for easy targets, and two or more people make their job harder.
Even when you are alone, though, you can try to stay with the crowd. For example, I live near a big highway and to get to the other side I need to cross a long pedestrian bridge. Depending on the time of day, I prefer to wait for a group of people (or even just one other person) to hitch a ride to the other side. One never knows what can happen – and I have even been involved in a few incidents on these pedestrian bridges before (more on that later).
Safety in numbers is something we are taught since kindergarten and it´s a great tip for getting around São Paulo.
7. GET TO KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD “STAND-BYS”
Nearly every neighbourhood in São Paulo will have what I like to call its “stand-bys,” which are people who work on the streets standing there selling an assortment of things like cakes, corn, cigarettes, and even drugs. Other stand-bys will watch parked cars for a few Reais or they are paid by members of a community to be official watchmen. Stand-bys usually don’t have much money, live in poorer areas, and bust their butts every day working, which normally affords them protection from the gangs and thieves.
Although some may consider these people a nuisance, it’s not a bad policy to drop them some money every once in a while and/or greet them with an, “Oi” (Hello) or, “Como Vai (How are you?).
If you form a genuine camaraderie with your local standby, word gets around – as they don’t like their clientele messed with.
I escaped a mugging in my neighbourhood once by yelling at the thugs and telling them that I knew all the guys who watch cars in front of the shopping mall (and I really did) and that I would always drop them some extra change when I had it or even some food.
Although my intent when helping the car watchers was genuine, it paid off in the end when the thugs left me alone. The general rule applies that criminals shouldn’t shit where they eat or mess with people who are either from the favelas or help others in the favelas. Creating this network with your stand-bys is not a full-proof way of evading trouble, mind you, but in this case, it worked.
Another friend of mine, who lived many years in the heart of dangerous downtown São Paulo, would always make it her business to help out the street lurkers in her neighbourhood with a few Reais. In return, they would always watch out to make sure nobody messed with her when she was on her way home late in the evening.
One hand washes another – and ten or twenty Reais every week or so is worth the price of not having to buy another 800 Reais cell phone.
8. DON´T STOP TO TALK TO PEOPLE YOU DON´T KNOW
One way criminals operate in the very busy city of São Paulo is by finding ways to stop you in your tracks. As I mentioned before, the more crowded streets make it harder for a bandit to pull a weapon out on you and then get away without being beaten down – and I have seen the beat downs before and they are not pretty. So, instead, they will ask you to stop for a minute or try to ask you a question. Unless you feel completely certain that you are in control of the situation, don’t do it. Say, “Sorry, I´m in a rush,” (Desculpa, estou com pressa) and keep moving.
One minute of distraction is enough for someone to reach into your purse or bag or to snatch a belonging and run.
It’s also not a smart idea to follow anyone who is asking for help. Sometimes the sob stories you hear will be Oscar worthy and the criminal will want to show you where their starving family member is sleeping, but this is only a ploy to get you to go to a less crowded area and rob you. Children are used a lot in this type of operation – don´t be fooled by their innocent faces. If you want to help a kid on the street (and São Paulo has a lot of them) then you pick them out and bring them some food, clothing, or money – not the other way around.
Your mission on the streets is to get from point A to point B – don’t allow anything to come in the way of that. Remaining in the driver´s seat in São Paulo will save you from a lot of trouble.
9. ACKNOWLEDGE A PERSON THEN GET OUT OF THE WAY IF YOU SENSE DANGER
If you are walking down the street and see an individual or group of people coming your way, don’t look down – let them know you see them. Criminals prey on fear and having your head down will either be read as a submissive act or as being someone who is distracted – both easy targets for them.
When I see a group of people coming my way, I keep my head up and see where their hands are while doing my best to assess the situation. I don’t necessarily make eye-contact, but I keep my destiny in sight while not breaking stride.
If I sense that the people may be altered in some way or just too raucous and unpredictable for my taste, I do one of two things (especially when I am alone at night) – stop and wait for them to pass me or cross the street.
If you do this, always remember to do it with purpose. There is no need to be afraid – you are simply stating to the other party that you see them and would prefer to not be part of whatever it is that they are a part of. There is no shame in that.
You may also be surprised that when you acknowledge someone on the street it is sometimes they who change directions. Always remember – street criminals are mostly cowards and they don’t want to work harder than they must to get over on someone.
10. HAVE 360º VISION
São Paulo is full of noise and distractions so things and people can sneak up on you quickly; the least you can do is try to prepare for it. Being able to turn your head 360º, Linda Blair style is a must.
As you get off the bus or leave your home, look left, right, front, and back – be fully aware of everything and everyone around you.
I have avoided some possible incidents by simply looking behind me and seeing someone there that had not been there a second before. In those cases, I may cross the street or speed up my pace. Maybe who I saw was not a criminal but maybe they were. Why should I want to play Russian roulette alone on a dark street at night?
In fact, the two times I have been mugged in São Paulo where a direct result of not having 360º vision.
The first time it happened was when I had just arrived in Brazil. I left a club downtown at three in the morning drunk and with my head in the clouds. A guy approached me while I was staring into space and demanded that I give him my cell phone. I was a bit dazed but told him I didn´t have a phone only some money.
A few seconds later his much bigger cohort came up from behind asking him what was taking so long. I gave them about 40 Reais while they searched my bag. When they were sure I wasn´t hiding anything extra they said, “Thanks,” and walked off. I went off in the other direction. Fortunately, I had remembered to stuff my cell phone in my underwear.
The second time I was mugged is when I had just come back from a trip to Europe and again was walking around with my head in the clouds. This time two guys approached me and started a conversation on one of those pedestrian bridges I had mentioned before. They accompanied me to the other side and once there they switched their friendly tune and demanded my belongings. I had an old cheap cell phone that I handed over and that was that.
I was shocked. I had come back to the city on a Thursday only to get mugged on a Sunday. How could I have been such easy prey? Perhaps my spirit was still in Paris. Needless to say, my brain reverted back to São Paulo alert mode very quickly after that.
The moral of these stories is that both incidents could have been easily avoided if I had been more alert (which is not to take away the culpability of the culprits).
Looking back, I can see that the first mugging was a result of my not having been in the city long enough to utilize my “spidey-sense,” and the second mugging was a result of having been away from the city long enough to have forgotten to turn my “spidey-sense” back on once back. Both times the criminals were in plain view. I simply did not look beside or behind me to see them coming at regular-pace from a mile away.
WHAT IF I AM BEING MUGGED!!!!!
Unfortunately, things being how they are in São Paulo and in Brazil, crime is not something we can always avoid. So what do you do if you are being mugged or worse?
The most important thing to do is to stay calm.
As I stated above, most criminals want your stuff and not your life. If a bandit is pointing a weapon at you, you really are at their mercy depending on how prepared or unprepared you are to combat that attack.
Becoming anxious or agitated may only aggravate the already tense situation.
Remember that some of the small-time thieves may be just as nervous as you when committing the crime – nervous criminals pull triggers. Conversely, the more seasoned criminals will be as cold as ice and will have a ball trying to scare you – don’t play into it. It’s part of the act. Let things proceed and move on.
TO REACT OR NOT TO REACT
The majority of news organizations, politicians, and even crime specialists in Brazil will always tell you to never react during an armed assault. Although this is good advice – a cell phone or even a car isn’t worth your life – there are times when people react and come out the winner.
That said, I cannot be responsible for your individual choices nor their consequences; therefore, I will not tell you what you should do in this circumstance. I can only speak from my own experiences and I have been in situations where I have reacted and others where I haven’t.
Simply stated, reacting to a crime in process requires reading the criminal and seeing whether or not you can get away with fighting back or not – this assessment must be made quickly and assuredly.
As a rule of thumb, if the perpetrator doesn’t show a weapon then screaming, hitting, or running is not an unreasonable gut reaction. If the criminal is showing a weapon, then you should think twice about your next move.
Again, reacting is up to you – I cannot stress enough that I am not responsible for what happens if you make this decision. I am only presenting possible outcomes based on my experiences (and some experiences of others) here in São Paulo.
I will say this first, though, I strongly believe that the more a population pushes back, the more a criminal with think twice before deciding to walk around unfettered to terrorize our lives.
So, if you do choose to react to a crime you must be quick, assertive and decisive. Showing any sign of strong resistance usually makes the average street punk run off to look for easier prey. The more experienced criminal may fight you back, in which case, you must be prepared to take them down or offer enough resistance to make them give up and run off.
Something you should always consider when reacting to a crime is that bandits rarely work alone. Although you may be facing one individual, another bandit (or more bandits) can show up and hurt or kill you.
It’s also important to note that Brazilian law may favour the criminal if you hurt one badly enough or take their lives. You can be charged with assault and battery for using excessive force or homicide if they die. It becomes a question of legitimate defence and whether or not you should have stopped hurting them at some point in your reaction to a crime.
In the case that you choose to not react and the criminals run off with your stuff, get out of the location if you can and ask for help immediately.
Also, make a police report (B.O. in Portuguese). If there is not a police station nearby, police reports can be filled out online here. Depending on the region, the police will redouble their efforts at monitoring for crime if enough reports are filed. So although it may feel like police reports go into some deep dark Brazilian bureaucratic hole, they are not a complete waste of time.
Whatever you choose to do, remember to always be calm and focused. Criminal acts happen quickly and no criminal is like the other. Some of them may be drugged up and others may really be out to hurt someone. Your best option is usually to trust your gut instinct and do what you can to come out the other end with a story to tell.
When one comes to São Paulo they need to come with their city mentality and street smarts intact and on full alert.
This city is huge and its varying landscapes, which range from tall buildings to quiet residential neighbourhoods with houses and squares, will require different thought patterns and wits.
Although most of these tips can be utilized in many large cities, one must consider that the vast social and economic inequalities, moral turpitude, and all around disorganization of São Paulo blow everything up a notch. São Paulo may be Brazil´s richest city and boast some rather lavish locales, but it´s still very much a city of the developing-world with developing-world problems.
If you feel you are New York City or London tough than be New York City and London tougher. Always remember that unlike some first world cities that do have their crime problems but which are mostly restricted to gangs and inner cities, São Paulo is a place where violence and crime can happen anywhere. So, always be on watch.
Lastly, this post is meant to used as a tool. My intent is not to scare anyone away from the city.
I have been fortunate to travel to a few other places in Brazil – and I continue to enjoy the city of São Paulo the most despite its problems. Perhaps that is a sign of a mental disturbance, but I like to think it´s because the city has its fair share of laid-back neighbourhoods and hidden spots to get away from the madness. I have plenty of friends, both foreign and national, who have lived here longer than I and have never had a bad crime experience.
São Paulo is is a very diverse city. It is a place where you can have some wonderful experiences. I have walked these streets at all hours of the day and night and with all sorts of people. Bars and restaurants are always full and Paulistanos are always busy on their way somewhere. If you live in a state of constant fear, you will not enjoy yourself here. Not living in a state of fear does not mean living in a state of obviousness, though. Play it smart and stay safe. In the end, São Paulo is what you make of it. Be Smart. Be Aware. Be Alive.
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