The number one question I receive about Brazil is " How safe is Rio de Janeiro?". My answer is simple." It depends on who you want to believe."
According to statistic reports, the murder rate is the lowest rate it has been in 20 years. Only 4500 people were murdered in Rio de Janeiro last year. I am not sure if this number is for the city of Rio de Janeiro or the state of Rio de Janeiro. Either way, 4500 people is a lot of people!!! The murder rate in Canada is 1.9 per 100,000 people. in 2006 the murder rate in Rio de Janeiro city was 38.7 per 100,000.
These numbers need to be investigated further. In the Zona Sul of Rio de Janeiro, the standard of living rivals those of European countries. Drive 20 minutes from the Zona Sul and you can find areas poorer than parts of Africa.
Violent crimes are more prevalent in the shantytowns due to the drug wars between rival gangs. This has diminished lately due to the pacification process implemented by the state government.
The chances of being murdered in Ipanema are low.
That said, there are events known as 'arrastaos' which are when a large group of thieves go to a crowded beach and literally sweep the beach of anything and everything. They were 'in fashion' a few years back, but lately haven't happened.
Crime comes in waves in Rio. Sometimes it seems like a civil war is happening, other times its peaceful.
How to protect yourself?
1. Be discreet. Try to look like a local, start by buying a pair of Havaianas. Avoid speaking English loudly in crowded places as that will attract 'curiousity'.
2. Look like you know where you are going. If you are lost, pop into a store, restaurant or a bank to ask directions. Avoid approaching strangers.
3. Leave your valuables at home. If going to the beach, take some money and a sarong to sit on, that's all you need.
4. Take taxis at night.
5. Don't be curious to know what the shantytowns look like. I know there are 'favela' tours that are considered safe, but I don't agree with the 'zoological' aspect of these tours. Would you like people snooping around your neighbourhood in the name of tourism? I think it's exploitive.
6. Let people know where you are going and when you are expected back.
i have friends that are ex pats and some of the security measures they take are a bit paranoid in my opinion. But its the companies that set the rules...