Vehicle theft and robbery present significant challenges in Brazil, profoundly impacting public security and the economy. These crimes are pervasive in large cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The high demand for illegal automotive parts and inadequate regulatory oversight in dismantling shops significantly contribute to these issues. The increase in thefts and robberies, especially targeting popular vehicle models for parts, underscores a complex interplay of socioeconomic factors and criminal activities. Organized criminal networks capitalize on these conditions, transforming vehicle theft into a lucrative and well-organized enterprise. Despite legislative efforts and technological interventions, persistent challenges hinder the effective mitigation of these pervasive crimes.

An Overview of Brazil

Vehicle robbery and theft are significant issues in Brazil, affecting both public security and the economy. In large cities with high crime rates, these crimes stand out due to their frequency and impact on citizens’ lives. This is a complex phenomenon involving organized criminal networks, illegal markets for automotive parts, and socioeconomic factors that perpetuate this cycle.

Brazil ranks high globally in vehicle theft and robbery. According to the 2023 Brazilian Public Security Yearbook, 373,225 cases were recorded in 2022, representing an 8% increase from 2021. This averages over 1,000 cases daily. Car theft, where the vehicle is stolen without force or threats, is more common than robbery, where threats or violence are used. Factors contributing to these crimes include demand for spare parts on the illegal market, poor inspection of dismantlement shops, corruption, and inefficiency in public security. Economic crises further exacerbate the issue, making illegal parts an attractive alternative for many consumers.

Vehicle robbery and theft in Brazil and in it’s capitals in 2022 and 2023. Source: Anuário de Segurança Pública 2023.

In large cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, vehicle theft takes on a more alarming dimension. These metropolises, with a large portion of the national fleet, are the main centers of activity for specialized gangs, transforming car theft into a highly profitable and organized business. Rapid vehicle dismantling and the subsequent sale of parts on the illegal market are common practices.

São Paulo

In São Paulo, vehicle theft and robbery have resurged after years of decline, as criminal groups exploit supply chain issues to revive the black market. The city began to see an uptick in vehicle theft around 2020, mirroring a national trend. These crimes increased from 41,413 in 2020 to 49,500 in 2023, an increase of almost 20%, according to an internally conducted study based on data made available by the São Paulo’s Secretariat of Public Security.

Evolution of vehicle robberies and thefts in São Paulo between 2017 and April 2024. The blue line represents thefts and the red line represents robberies.

Stolen vehicles predominantly fuel a large market for illicit vehicle parts. Criminals avoid high-end luxury cars due to their limited demand in the black market. Instead, they focus on popular and affordable models with parts that are in high demand. Stolen vehicles are transported to chop shops where they are dismantled for parts, which are then sold at lower prices, creating competition for legitimate markets. In São Paulo, these illegal operations are controlled by the First Capital Command (PCC). Even though its production was discontinued, the Volkswagen Gol continues to be favored by criminals. The model was the most stolen in São Paulo, every year, between 2017 and April 2024.

The rise in car theft follows a period of decline that began after the enactment of Brazil’s chop shop law in 2014. This legislation prohibits the dismantling of vehicles and the resale of their parts unless performed in an authorized shop registered with the state. São Paulo further mandated that all car parts must have a QR code. This led to a significant drop in vehicle theft and robberies.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted this trend. Brazil was first affected in March 2020 when car thefts had hit a low point. Supply chains were halted, and imports of cars and parts declined. New cars became scarce, driving up demand for used vehicles and their prices. With this increased demand, the sale of contraband car parts has re-emerged as a lucrative business.

Vehicle models most robbed and stolen between 2017 and April 2024, the period of our analysis.

Our analysis identified the neighborhoods with the highest rates of vehicle thefts and robberies in São Paulo between 2017 and April 2024. São Mateus leads with more than 9,000 registered cases, followed by Ipiranga with more than 8,500 cases. Sapopemba records over 8,000 occurrences, Tatuapé more than 7,500, and Itaquera over 7,000 registered cases.

Vehicle robberies in São Paulo throughout the week.

Another key finding from our study is that most vehicle robberies occur at night, between 19:00 and 23:00, peaking on Thursdays between 19:00 and 22:00. Robberies are more common at night due to reduced visibility and movement, making it easier for criminals to act. Drivers are more vulnerable, and there is less police presence.

Vehicle thefts in São Paulo throughout the week.

In contrast, vehicle thefts are most frequent during two periods throughout the day: between 9:00 and 13:00 and between 18:00 and 22:00, primarily on weekdays. During the day, the increased movement of people and vehicles helps criminals blend in, taking advantage of the busy routine and distractions of drivers. These times coincide with periods when many vehicles are parked in public places while owners work or carry out daily activities.

Rio de Janeiro

On 18 June, the Military Police conducted an operation in Complexo da Maré, Rio de Janeiro, targeting a gang specializing in car robbery. Intense shooting was reported, especially in the Conjunto Esperança, Vila do João, Salsa and Merengue, and Vila dos Pinheiros communities. Six people, including two police officers, were killed. The operation resulted in the seizure of weapons, six stolen cars, two motorcycles, and drugs. Additionally, a hiding place used by the Third Pure Command (TCP) was discovered. Investigations indicate that Complexo da Maré is a primary destination for stolen vehicles in the region and on Avenida Brasil.

Vehicle theft and robbery in Rio de Janeiro are significant public security issues, affecting thousands of citizens daily. The Public Security Institute (ISP) recorded 5,052 vehicle thefts in the first four months of 2024, averaging 42 incidents per day, and 3,135 vehicle robberies, averaging 26 per day. These figures represent increases of 10% and 14% compared to the same period in 2023. In 2023, there were 12,324 vehicle robberies and 8,213 thefts, mostly occurring between Monday and Saturday, from 18:00 to 21:00.

Evolution of vehicle robbery and theft in Rio de Janeiro between 2018 and April 2024. Light blue represents thefts and dark blue represents robberies.

In the first three months of 2024, only 36% of stolen vehicles were recovered in Rio de Janeiro, a lower proportion than ten years ago. Currently, one in three stolen cars is recovered, compared to one in two in 2014. The Brazilian Public Security Forum suggests that this decline may indicate that unrecovered cars are either dismantled for parts or cloned for resale or export, reflecting organized crime strategies to maximize profits.

The ISP organizes vehicle robbery and theft data by Integrated Public Security Circumscriptions (CISPs), which correspond to police station areas. In the first quarter of 2024, the 27th CISP (Vicente de Carvalho neighborhood) had the highest number of stolen vehicles, with 339 cases. Following was the 21st DP (Bonsucesso) with 279 cases, the 39th DP (Pavuna) with 219 cases, the 29th DP (Madureira) with 209 cases, the 33rd DP (Realengo) with 185 cases, and the 30th DP (Marechal Hermes) with 183 cases. The Military Police attribute the increase in vehicle thefts to territorial disputes between criminal factions. Vehicle thefts are not merely isolated crimes, but part of a larger strategy employed by these factions to finance their activities and consolidate control over specific areas.

Although South Zone areas are not leading in absolute crime numbers, they have a notable proportion of stolen to recovered vehicles. In the 14th DP area (Leblon), 60 vehicles were stolen with no recoveries. In the 9th DP area (Catete), 125 vehicles were stolen, with only 7 recovered (5.6%). In the 10th DP area (Botafogo), 107 vehicles were stolen, with 7 recovered (6.54%). Examples of violence include a robbery in Botafogo on 15 May, where a gang on motorcycles robbed a car, and an incident on 10 April in Barra da Tijuca, where a doctor was shot after a vehicle, he was in was surrounded by criminals.

Automakers are responding by installing chips in vehicle parts to prevent dismantling and illegal resale. Rio de Janeiro has also adopted Civitas, an advanced system to locate stolen, robbed, and cloned vehicles using 900 radars and 50 cameras for license plate reading. Civitas creates an intelligent surveillance network, alerting authorities to possible license plate cloning. Integrated with Disque Denúncia – a service that helps people to alert police about crimes and criminals –, it allows citizens to report suspicious vehicles. Future integration with private security cameras is expected to enhance public safety and vehicle monitoring efficiency in the city.

Protecting Your Vehicle

Preventing vehicle theft and robbery is crucial for vehicle owners. Here are effective measures to minimize the risk:

  1. Hide Valuables: Keep important items like wallets, purses, and electronics out of sight. Store them in the glove compartment, trunk, or under the seats.
  2. Avoid Personal Information: Do not display personal information such as name, address, or workplace details, as these can make you and your family vulnerable.
  3. Protect Car Windows: Use darker window films to reduce visibility from the outside. Security films can also increase window resistance against breakage.
  4. Choose Parking Spaces Wisely: Prefer closed parking lots over street parking. If street parking is necessary, choose well-lit areas near shops or buildings with security.
  5. Insurances: Make sure your car is protected by an insurance that covers security and safety problems.
  6. Invest in Security Devices: Use electric locks, alarms, GPS trackers, and immobilizer systems to enhance vehicle security. Steering wheel and pedal locks can also be effective.
  7. Always Lock Your Vehicle: Remove the key from the ignition and lock the car every time you leave it.
  8. Always check the lock: After parking, check if the vehicle is really closed. Criminals have devices that can block the car’s key signal and prevent it from closing.
  9. Keep a distance from the front row: When parked at the red light, remain distant from the car in the front row. Criminals prefer this one, so they can rob and leave immediately.
  10. Before entering a garage, be aware of your surroundings, pay attention to the street, sidewalks, and corners. Many robberies happen exactly at this moment. If any suspicious thing draws your attention, move around the block or go directly to a police station.
  11. Stay Alert: Pay attention to your surroundings while driving. If you notice suspicious behavior, like someone following you, change your route and contact the police.
  12. When acquiring a car, prefer strong colors, like red: Criminals tend to avoid stealing cars with strong colors, since they draw police’s attention.
  13. Avoid Staying in a Parked Car: If you need to wait for someone, lock your vehicle and wait outside at a safe distance to monitor the car discreetly.

If your vehicle is stolen despite these precautions, the first step is to file a police report. This allows authorities to issue an alert for your vehicle. Remember to stay calm and try to recall all details of the incident.

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