Before I left Rio de Janeiro in 2007, I worked in a hostel as a receptionist and I couldn’t understand how some travellers were so naive. It didn’t matter how many times I told them to not go somewhere in the evening, they just thought they knew better. The result: every week at least one traveller got mugged.
When I arrived in London in the same year, it took me a couple of months to adjust. I remember putting my mobile and wallet in my underwear when walking on unlit streets; always double-checking if I was being followed, and, of course, being acutely aware of the things happening around me.
The thing is you cannot compare the violence between Brazil and Europe. It’s just on another level.
We have a history of violence
I’m not going to delve too much into Brazilian history, but it’s important to understand a bit of our past to have a clear look at our current state.
Brazil was built through exploitation. We were that last country in the world to abolish slavery. If you add to that the macho culture, the horrendously uneven distribution of wealth, and the rampant corruption of the government, it’s difficult to see a different outcome.
Our population is very diverse, but it doesn’t translate into an equal nation. Black people constitute the majority of our inmate population; women fight every day to have more agency over their lives, and we have areas where mansions share a wall with favelas.
Violence is part of your life.
Have you heard about the “thief’s money?” It’s when people spread their money in different pockets and keep a dummy wallet with expired cards and documents, so that If they get robbed, they’ll just lose a fiver.
It’s funny that this is a strategy travellers use when they’re visiting dangerous countries, whereas in Brazil it’s the way people live.
We don’t have hole-in-the-wall ATM’s in Brazil, it just wouldn’t work. If you want to withdraw some money you need to either go inside the bank or use one of the secure outside “cabins” — and they’re usually closed by 22:00. If you need money, you have to find the elusive 24-hour cash points.
After 23:00 the traffic lights turn to flashing yellow. Not everywhere of course, otherwise it could be dangerous, but anywhere with a high crime rate. This law was created as in the past the drivers had two options: stop at the red light, only to be robbed at gunpoint or go through and possibly crash into oncoming cars.
Is it getting any better?
The government created a program called UPP, where it allocated police units to the favelas in the Zona Sul of Rio de Janeiro (a rich neighbourhood) to control violence and get rid of the drug lords. The problem is that it was mainly created because we were about to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.
Are we safe now? Well, one of my friends just got robbed in Ipanema a couple of days ago; 56 inmates were killed in one of Brazil’s biggest massacre as the main drug lord’s factions are fighting each other, and a guy killed 12 people on New Year’s Eve leaving behind an extremely misogynist letter (nine women were killed).
Probably, a better question to ask is: Is there any hope? Yes! I wanted to give you a raw image of Brazil so you have an idea of the things people face on a daily basis, but does it mean you shouldn’t visit it? No it doesn’t and you should definitely spend some time in Brazil.
The people of Brazil
The main take here is that although we’re used to violence it doesn’t mean we condone it — we hate it as much as the next person. It’s a problem you learn to live with. The same way you might leave home early to avoid the traffic jam, we might not visit a neighbourhood in the evening to avoid being robbed.
However, as soon as you leave the big cities or capitals and explore the countryside and small towns, you see a different country. We still have places where kids play on the streets, neighbours gossip on their doorsteps, and people sleep with their windows wide open.
When people ask me about the violence in Brazil, my answer is always the same: ask the locals. These people know the dangerous areas; dangerous bars; dangerous times and most importantly, they want you to be safe.
However, don’t forget that shit happens and if it happens to you, just shake it off and carry on with your life as we Brazilians do every day.