Violence in Rio de Janeiro prompts Copacabana residents to form illegal vigilante patrols

By December 13, 2023

São Paulo, Brazil – An increase in robberies and thefts in Rio de Janeiro’s picturesque Copacabana tourist enclave has led to the creation of vigilante groups, patrolling the streets and operating outside of the law.

On social media, messages have been circulating for over the last ten days inviting local residents to join groups to patrol the streets.

The formation of the vigilante groups follows outrage after videos surfaced depicting local gangs robbing tourists, merchants, and locals in Copacabana.

On December 2, surveillance cameras captured a 67-year-old man being violently assaulted by a criminal who knocked the man unconscious with a punch. His cellphone and personal belongings were then lifted off of him.

Elderly man robbed and attacked in Copacabana (surveillance camera footage)

That same day, two other attacks were recorded by security cameras. In one, a woman is violently grabbed by the neck by a robber and as she tries to break free, the thief snatches what looks to be a necklace and runs off. In the next video, a young woman is approached by a shirtless man with a light-colored cap. He struggles to remove an object from the woman’s wrist, even using his teeth at one point. Shocked, the woman stands in the frame, paralyzed by fear as the robber walks away to join the rest of his roving street gang.

Data from Rio de Janeiro’s Public Security Institute reveals that cases of theft rose by 23% in 2023 compared to 2022, while robberies increased by 25% in the same period.

Following the increase in crime, vigilantes began taking to the streets of Copacabana and surrounding neighborhoods.

However, this type of vigilantism may be considered a crime in Brazil, as the country’s Constitution says public security activities should be handled exclusively by the police. Authorities have already said they’re investigating the vigilante groups.

This hasn’t deterred the vigilantes, however. On social media, members share videos and images of their aggressive actions against thieves. Armed with wooden clubs, iron bars, and even brass knuckles, they walk in groups of 10 or 15 men searching for confrontation.

After robberies increased, vigilante groups emerged in Copacabana (images published on social media)

In an interview with a local television station, Rio de Janeiro’s public security secretary, Victor Santos, said that the vigilantes are also criminals and compared their actions to extermination groups.

After the wave of attacks in Copacabana, the Rio de Janeiro police command announced on December 7 that patrols in Copacabana will be reinforced with more security agents working in the area to ensure people’s protection. 

On December 8, the security forces announced the arrest of the man caught on camera assaulting the elderly man with a violent punch.

The situation is particularly embarrassing and worrying for Rio de Janeiro authorities who do not want to see the city’s image damaged at this time. In the coming days, tourists from all over the world are expected to disembark in Rio to enjoy the end-of-year festivities.

Last New Year’s Eve, three million people welcomed 2023 on Copacabana’s beach. The city certainly doesn’t want roving gangs of robbers and vigilante groups to scare off tourists and ruin the celebrations.

Three million people celebrate the 2023 arrival on Copacabana beach (courtesy of Lu Vilela/Riotur)