The recent incidents in Rio de Janeiro seashore, particularly mass robberies at Praia do Leme/Copacabana and acts of vandalism in Glória, highlight the ongoing challenges related to crime, especially in beach areas during the summer season. The association between mass robberies and beaches in the South Zone has a long history. Despite efforts like “Operation Summer”, which involves increased policing and surveillance, incidents persist, with tourists being targeted repeatedly. Meanwhile, in another part of Rio’s coast, in the West Zone, the insecurity also rises but fueled by different reasons, an ongoing conflict between militias and drug traffickers, struggling for control over the waterfront, which is leading to a surge in violence and fatalities. The situation underscores the complexity of addressing crime in Rio de Janeiro, necessitating a comprehensive approach that goes beyond immediate law enforcement measures.

Recent Cases

A mass robbery scared bathers who were at Praia do Leme, in the South Zone, on a Sunday, 24 September. In images posted on social media, it is possible to see a rush in the middle of a crowded beach with temperatures reaching almost 41ºC.

According to the Military Police, officers were called to an incident of mass robbery in Praia do Leme. According to the unit’s command, they quickly managed to contain the criminals’ actions, who resisted the police approach. During the action, the policemen were attacked, and the criminals threw several objects at them. Two men were arrested. Policing was reinforced in the region, thereafter.

Also on 24 September, a group of young people was apprehended in Glória, South Zone, for acts of vandalism on a bus on Line 492 (Bancários x Prado Junior), which was heading towards Copacabana beach.

Acts of violence and destruction were seen also at the exit of beaches. Several videos published on social media show young people on crowded buses in Copacabana. In some images, it is possible to see passengers leaving through the bus windows. Other recordings also show panic on the streets.

Mass Robberies on Rio de Janeiro Beaches

The association between mass robberies and beaches, especially those in the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro, is cyclical and historical. It gains strength during the hottest months of the year. It is influencing many beachgoers when they decide where and at what time to go, and it has remained like that for decades

Mass robberies in Rio de Janeiro1s beaches have been carried out by groups since the beginning of the 1990s. Understanding how a simple trip to the beach becomes a potential nightmare is a challenge even for public security experts. The different roots of the problem make it difficult both to fully understand it and to apply effective solutions. For sociologist Lia de Mattos Rocha, from the Violence Analysis Laboratory at State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), the “short blanket” of public security in Rio is one of the factors that helps explain the scenario. When you invest a lot in one place, other places are left without care, she explains.

Mass robberies are carried out by young people who move, for the most part, from neighborhoods and suburbs of the north zone, little served by public services, to the beaches of the South Zone, the most touristic and valued region of the city. Although strongly linked to the beaches, mass robberies can occur beyond the seafronts and even downtown or in the North and West Zone of the city as in other municipalities in the Metropolitan Region. The beach mass robberies, however, seems to populate the city’s imagination more intensely.

Operation Summer

To curb mass robberies, theft, and other forms of violence during the summer, the Rio de Janeiro Military Police has carried out Operation Summer since the 1990s. Operation Summer 2023/24 began on 7 September on the waterfront of the South, West and Ilha do Governador zones, in addition to the Madureira and Deodoro parks.

Carried out by the Secretariat of Public Order (Seop) and the Municipal Guard (GM-Rio), the Operation aims to reinforce planning actions, inspections of municipal postures and preventive patrolling, in addition to providing greater security presence for the population, both when traveling to the beaches, as well as when staying on them. In total, 600 agents are working exclusively on Operation Summer and, as the end of the year and the heat approaches, more agents will be integrated into the workforce. Policing was also reinforced on expressways and access highways to municipalities with the highest flow of tourists and coastal cities.

This year, along with helicopters and drones, which help with monitoring, the Military Police is using cameras on police uniforms, in addition to 900 surveillance cameras on public roads in the Centro, Tijuca and South Zone regions. The images will be transmitted in real time, to the Integrated Command and Control Centre, in Cidade Nova, where the operation has its headquarters.

Special Military Police patrols

  • Sand strip: Police officers will use quad bikes, and tents will be set up along the shore to serve as support points for police officers and references for the population.
  • Copacabana, Ipanema, and Barra da Tijuca neighborhoods: policing will be carried out by the Mounted Police Regiment (RPMont). Dogs from the Dog Action Battalion (BAC) will provide support to police officers who will be patrolling the inner streets of the neighborhoods, and officers from the Special Rounds and Crowd Control (RECOM) battalion will work in specific areas, according to the corporation.
  • Other beaches in the capital: Flamengo, Botafogo, Urca, Ilha do Governador, among others, will also have reinforced policing.
  • Expressways and access to the waterfront: reinforcement will be the responsibility of the Expressway Police Battalion (BPVE). Along these roads, buses traveling towards the seafront will be monitored and may be intercepted if actions are found to put public transport safety at risk. There will also be actions at bus terminals and metro stations.
  • Interior and coastal regions (Niterói, Lagos Region, Costa Verde and Norte Fluminense): there will be reinforced policing in municipalities that receive many tourists. Just like the partnership with Rio’s city hall in the capital, security planning in interior municipalities relies on integration with local city halls.

Numbers So Far

Since the weekend of 7 September, Rio de Janeiro Military Police’s Summer Operation collected 572 bladed weapons, in downtown and South Zone of the capital, including knives and pocketknives, but also scissors and other piercing objects. Operation Summer also recorded 24,758 police approaches to people until 22 November.

Knife seized by the Military Police in the South Zone of Rio — Photo Credit: Rio Military Police Disclosure.

Tourists Are the Main Targets

On 19 November, a tourist from the state of Mato Grosso do Sul was killed during a robbery on Copacabana Beach, South Zone of Rio. The 25-year-old victim was in the city for singer Taylor Swift’s concert. According to witnesses, he fell asleep on the sand while his friends chatted. At that moment, they were approached by a group of robbers. The group had left most of their belongings in the car, which would have angered the robbers. The victim woke up suddenly and was stabbed by the irritated criminals.

This robbery was not an isolated incident. In 2022, 3,484 cases were registered at the Special Police Station for Tourism Support (Deat). An average of 9.5 occurrences per day. There were 2,083 thefts, 621 robberies and 295 cases of scams.

See the list of neighborhoods in Rio with the most registered crimes against foreign tourists in 2022:

  • Copacabana – 1,069 records
  • Ipanema – 517 records
  • Downtown – 335 records
  • Barra da Tijuca – 88 records
  • Leme – 79 records
  • Leblon – 77 records
  • Saúde – 46 records
  • Botafogo – 44 records
  • Santa Teresa – 30 records
  • Flamengo – 30 records

In occurrences in which the location of the crime was identified, beaches have the most records (843 cases), followed by public roads (740), hotel establishments (62) and inside taxis/Uber (30).

The British newspaper Daily Star published an article in October that brings together a short list of cities in the world that are considered most dangerous for tourists. The brief list brings Acapulco, in Mexico; Kingston, capital of Jamaica; and Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil. The three destinations are mentioned in a survey carried out by Armormax, an armored vehicle company, carried out in 2022, on 22 destinations. When talking about Rio, the publication highlights that the city is seen as dangerous for tourists given its criminal activity.

Copacabana Beach

New videos – recorded by the monitoring system – show a group of dozens of young people carrying out robberies from Arpoador beach to Copacabana. The images show the group, which appears to have minors and adults, walking along the beach.

This routine of violence in Copacabana led to the reappearance of vigilante groups in the neighborhood – as already seen in 2015. Using WhatsApp groups, they divide into groups to look for those who steal in the region. Among the objects that are displayed are brass knuckles, sticks and even the existence of armed people to provide cover.

Residents and tourists who frequent Copacabana, in the South Zone, are concerned about the increased feeling of insecurity in the neighborhood. What was just a perception gained confirmation in the region’s violence indicators. According to data from the Public Security Institute of Rio de Janeiro (ISP-RJ), between January and October 2022 and 2023, Copacabana had a significant increase in indicators on robbery and theft.

Violence indicators increase in Copacabana.

Among the indicators of violence analyzed, the most prominent negative ones are: passerby theft, which increased by 56.3% in one year; cell phone robbery, with a 47% increase; cell phone theft, which registered growth of 34.9%; and bus theft, with a 23% increase. In total, Copacabana saw the total number of thefts rise by 23% in one year. If in 2022 3,978 thefts were recorded in the neighborhood, the current year had 4,914 incidents. In relation to the total number of robberies, the number increased from 760 to 951 cases, registering an increase of 25%.

West Zone

An eight-kilometer strip of Rio’s waterfront, in the West Zone, is the target of a bloody dispute between militia and two drug factions. From Posto 12, in Recreio, to Grumari, passing through the beaches of Pontal, Macumba and Prainha, the dispute between criminal groups has been causing deaths, including innocent people, and visitors are often placed in the middle of disputes between militia groups and organized crime.

The activities of paramilitaries and drug traffickers in that stretch have existed for at least a decade, but the conflict escalated throughout this year — influenced by the internal war in Rio’s largest militia and the advance of the largest drug faction in the state into paramilitary areas. The war on the postcard was decisive for Barra and Recreio to break a historic record of violence: from January to September this year, the neighborhoods recorded 88 murders, the highest number in the region in 20 years.

The Recreio and Barra da Tijuca beaches, for a long time, have been seen as safer alternatives to the threats of the South Zone beaches. However, with violent actions of organized crime groups, both on the beaches and in the interior of their respective neighborhoods, associated with two consecutive annual increases in the number of thefts, this status has been changing. In addition to the aforementioned increases in homicide numbers in the two neighborhoods, we also saw a 46.1% increase in the number of robberies between 2021 and 2022, jumping from 7,855 in 2021 to 11,479 in 2022.

Addressing Complex Challenges in Rio de Janeiro’s Summer

The recent incidents of mass robberies, violence, and criminal disputes in Rio de Janeiro underscore the challenges faced by authorities in maintaining public safety, particularly in beach areas. The historical association between mass robberies and beach areas, coupled with the ongoing struggles for territorial control, highlights the complex nature of the problem. Despite initiatives like Operation Summer aiming to address these issues, the root causes, including socioeconomic disparities and uneven public security distribution, persist.

The targeting of tourists, as evident in the alarming statistics, raises concerns about the city’s global reputation for safety. Rio’s inclusion in a list of dangerous destinations further emphasizes the urgent need for comprehensive strategies beyond immediate law enforcement measures. The territorial war in the West Zone, involving militias, drug traffickers, and tragic consequences for innocent bystanders, amplifies the gravity of the situation.

In moving forward, addressing Rio de Janeiro’s security challenges requires a holistic approach, integrating social, economic, and law enforcement measures. Tackling the underlying issues contributing to crime, investing in neglected areas, and fostering community engagement are essential components of a sustainable solution. Ultimately, fostering a safer environment in Rio de Janeiro demands concerted efforts and collaboration among authorities, communities, and stakeholders to create lasting positive change.

  • Avoid unnecessary exposure of valuables/expensive items, including walk and talk on the phone
  • Take night walks along the Copacabana promenade, which is busier. The boardwalks of other beaches tend to be more deserted and avoid walking alone
  • Maintain your original passport and documents in a safe place and carry copies
  • Bring only the strictly necessary to the beach and do not leave your belongings unattended when you go for a swim. Locals tend to ask other bathers
  • During holidays or on weekends, the beaches are normally overcrowded, it is when most crimes occur. Hence, whenever possible, prefer weekdays. If it is not possible, prefer going to the beaches outside of peak / exit hours, between 8:00 and 14:00
  • Be always attentive to your surroundings, never allow children to move away from you
  • If you find yourself in a mass robbery, be quick: try to remain calm, grab the kids and move with the crowd trying to reach a Municipal Guard or a Military Police nearby. Let your belongings in the sand. The most important is yours and your relatives’ safety
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