Health Care, Disease Control, Crime and Safety in BrazilIf you intend to visit the truly exquisite country of Brazil, either for a vacation, an educational opportunity or a business placement of some kind, it would be in your best interests to become acquainted with the nation’s health and safety systems, and the institutions that govern them. To help you with this, below we will discuss, in some detail, the health care system of Brazil, including how it cares for its citizens and foreign nationals. We will also describe the Brazilian law enforcement structure and the various agencies that comprise that system at both the federal and state level. Finally, we will provide a few general health and safety tips for tourists traveling to Brazil, and give you a few emergency numbers to keep handy once you arrive in the country.
Health and Brazil
The Brazilian Constitution of 1988, along with the Organic Health Law of 1990, universalized access to medical care in the country; unified the public health system, supported by the Ministry of Health and the National Institute for Medical Assistance and Social Security (Instituto Nacional de Assistência Médica da Previdência Social—INAMPS); and decentralized the management and organization of health services from the federal to the state level and, particularly the municipal level. Between the years 1985 and 1990, for instance, the ratio of program funds managed by municipalities increased from ten to fifteen percent and by states from 23 to 33 percent. The sweeping health reforms that were initiated in the 1980s attempted to extend coverage to those outside the country’s social security system.
The constitution of Brazil stipulates that all Brazilian citizens have the right to seek free medical assistance from public health institutions, as well as those private providers that are reimbursed by the government for their services. While the public realm of health care administers all fundamental and preventive services, the private nonprofit and for-profit health care sector delivers the bulk of medical services, including government-subsidized inpatient care. This publicly financed and privately provided health system continues to intensify its focus on high-cost curative care, driving hospital costs up by 70 percent during the first decade of its implementation. In terms of funding, therapeutic treatment in hospitals tends to dominate the expense of health promotion and disease prevention programs.
About the Health Care System: Information for Those Traveling or Relocating to Brazil
Most major cities in Brazil have at least one private hospital, and in areas heavily traveled by tourists there are generally two or more hospitals. Unfortunately, foreigners traveling to Brazil will find that English-speaking general practitioners, dentists, opticians and particularly specialists are not always readily available. However, in cases of an emergency, should an English-speaking medical professional not be available, tourists can always contact an international hospital instead.
The health service infrastructure in Brazil consists of three branches: government health services, non-profit health organizations (NGOs), and the private medical sector.
Government Health Services
Public health services in Brazil are funded by the Brazilian government. The Ministry of Health, or locally, the Ministério da Saúde, is responsible for all public health services, government-funded hospitals—also known as Municipal Hospitals—and medical services.
The hospitals and clinics in the government sector offer excellent medical services to the general public. However, because there is no charge for the services, these hospitals are often overcrowded. Wait times can be extremely long and the facilities, while serviceable, are not as modern or cutting-edge as the private hospitals, often lacking things like air conditioning and certain pieces of medical equipment.
The government of Brazil administers public health programs such as Farmacia Popular, whose goal is to make essential medications and other drugs readily available—at an affordable price—for the Brazilian population. This includes those people who would otherwise lack the resources to obtain these often life-sustaining drugs.
Foreign nationals who are legally living in Brazil are entitled to free emergency medical treatment in public hospitals. Foreigners may also seek out services at one of the country’s private hospitals but must pay for that privilege.
Private Health Services
Most of the private hospitals and clinics in Brazil have excellent practitioners and facilities, making Brazil one of the leading medical tourism destinations in South America.
Non-Profit Health Organizations (NGO)Brazil has a variety of non-profit agencies set up to help disadvantaged people in Brazil, including the Red Cross (Cruz Vermelha Brasileira), an international organization, funded by donations, that helps people in dire need. Other non-profit health care agencies in Brazil include the Med Center and the Academia Nacional de Medicina:
Law Enforcement System in BrazilThe Brazilian Constitution of 1988 provided for five distinct law enforcement institutions, three at the federal level and two administered by the states. At the federal level, Brazil maintains: the Federal Police, the Federal Highway Police, and the Federal Railway Police. State law institutions include the State Military Police and Fire Brigade; and the State Civil Police.
All of the police institutions in Brazil belong to the executive branch of either the national government or state government. In accordance with Brazilian law, the only security forces that may call themselves Brazilian police are the five aforementioned institutions, as outlined in Article 144 of the Brazilian Constitution. There are officially two primary functions reserved for Brazilian law enforcement: maintaining order and enforcing the laws. Any criminal acts committed in violation of national/federal law are handled by one of the three federal branches of law enforcement, while those committed in violation of state law are handled by the police forces in the specific state in which the offense was committed.
Primary Functions of Brazilian Law EnforcementSimilar to law enforcement institutions around the world, Brazilian law enforcement agencies are responsible for enforcing the laws of the country and states and maintaining a semblance of order. According to the Brazilian Constitution, maintaining that order is generally considered a preventative effort, in which police officers monitor and patrol the community in an ongoing effort to protect the citizens of the country and to discourage criminal activity.
Law enforcement in the country also consists of criminal investigation, which leads to the arrest of those breaking the laws of the land. The prevention and investigation of crime in the states are divided between two distinct police institutions. Local military police forces are charged with maintaining order on the streets, while “civil” police organizations are responsible for the investigation of crimes already committed. Only one police institution in Brazil—the Federal Police—divide their time between both the prevention of crime and criminal investigation.
Federal Police OrganizationsAs previously mentioned, there are three federal police organizations in Brazil that handle law enforcement, each with specific functions and duties.
The Federal Police
The Federal Police, known locally as the Departamento de Policia Federal, are, according to the 1988 Brazilian Constitution, a “permanent administrative institution, answering to executive branch of the federal government.” The primary responsibilities of this federal organization include the prevention and investigation of federal crimes—crimes that violate federal law, regardless of where they are committed. In other words, the federal police have both order maintenance and law enforcement duties, essentially setting it apart from the four other law enforcement agencies. The Federal Police is also responsible for patrolling airports and maritime waters, and for protecting the Brazilian border. Leaders of this organization answer directly to the federal Ministry of Justice.
The Federal Highway Police
The Federal Highway Police, much like the Highway Patrol in the United States, is charged with maintaining order on Brazil’s federal highway system, enforcing the country’s traffic laws. Also an organ of the federal executive branch, the Federal Highway Police has no investigation duties, but is rather responsible for maintaining order on the roads.
The Federal Railway Police
The Federal Railway Police, the third rung on the federal Brazilian law enforcement ladder, is described in the Constitution as a “permanent administrative organ of the federal executive branch.” Like the name suggests, this agency is charged with patrolling the federal railway system and enforcing all laws with regard to said system. Like the Federal Highway Police, the Federal Railway Police merely maintains law and order and does not investigate crimes, leaving that duty to the Federal Police force.
State Police OrganizationsThere are two law enforcement agencies that operate at the state level—the Military Police and Fire Brigade and the State Civil Police—maintaining order and investigating crimes committed against state law in each of Brazil’s 26 states.
Military Police and Fire Brigade
The primary function of the Military Police and Fire Brigade is order maintenance in Brazil’s states. This branch of law enforcement patrols the streets and arrests individuals suspected of committing crimes. After these arrests, the suspects are then handed over to State Civil Police custody or, in the case of federal crimes, to the Federal Police. The Military Police and Fire Brigade is a “militarized” institution (gendarmerie) because it is based on military principles of hierarchy, ranks, uniform, discipline and ceremony. The organization is not, however, part of the Brazilian Armed Forces. The Brazilian Constitution describes the Military Police and Fire Brigade as an “ancillary force of the Army.” What this means is that, while the organization is a part of the Military Police, it does not perform traditional policing duties, as it is subordinated to the state government.
State Civil Police
The State Civil Police of Brazil is the primary law enforcement organization in each of the 26 states. It has the responsibility of investigating all crimes committed against state law. It does not patrol the streets (that duty is handled by the Military Police and Fiore Brigade) and does not use uniforms. Administrators of the State Civil police answer directly to the justice arm of the executive branch in each state.
Other Security Forces in Brazil
Municipalities in Brazil are free to create Municipal Guards. These forces are employed in the protection of property, services and facilities of local governments. Because they have no real police authority, their basic duty is to maintain order and report to the State Civil Police any suspicious activity. Although there is no provision for Municipal Guards in the Brazilian Constitution, over 700 municipalities in country employ the services of these forces.
The National Public Security Force
Known in Brazil as the Força Nacional de Segurança Pública, the National Public Security Force was created by presidential decree 5.289 on November 29, 2004. Not exactly a security force, the organization is more of a federal program of cooperation among all Brazilian police agencies for situations of emergency or exceptional nature.
Brazilian Armed Forces and other Internal Forces
The Army, Navy and Air Force police units are not to be confused with the State Military Police. These forces are non-civilian internal security agents used by each branch of the Armed Forces. They are responsible for maintaining and enforcing the laws of Brazil’s military. In times of great emergency—natural disasters, riots, etc.—the Brazilian Armed Forces may be called to help restore law and order.
Other internal security forces can also be employed for the protection of particular agencies or administrative entities, such as the guards used to watch over the legislative houses and certain Cabinet departments within the executive branch, who are not police officers.
Travel Safety Tips When Visiting Brazil
Traveling to a foreign country such as Brazil can offer the experience of a lifetime. However, in the midst of all this excitement you must also be cognizant of your surroundings and take certain precautions to ensure your safety. Like many of the countries in South America and around the world, Brazil has certain neighborhoods you might be wise to avoid, and the country is currently experiencing a higher than average crime rate due to an increase in gang activity in certain regions of the country.
To help you safely enjoy all that Brazil has to offer, below we have outlined a few travel safety tips you may want to keep in mind while visiting the country.
Travel in Groups
As the old saying goes, “there is safety in numbers.” Truer words have never been spoken. As you make your way through beautiful Brazil, en route to the various sites and attractions you’ve mapped out on your itinerary, always try to travel with at least one other person (even more if you can). Research shows that criminals are less likely to approach you when they feel outnumbered.
Make Copies of all Your Important Documents
Documents can easily be misplaced or even stolen in the hustle and bustle of foreign travel, creating a nightmarish situation you just don’t need. This is why you should make copies of all your important papers. This includes copies of your passport, visa, driver’s license, social security card and medical insurance card. Travel experts suggest you keep one copy of these documents on your person at all times, and at least one other copy locked in the hotel safe.
Beware of the Night
Sightseeing is an activity that should be limited to the daylight hours, as unsavory types tend to be hard at work during the nighttime, often preying on unsuspecting tourists. Enjoy your hotel during the nighttime hours, and if you must go out, try to stay in the immediate area.
Limit Your Alcohol
Vacation is a time to let loose and have fun, but too much fun can quickly land you in hot water or make you an unwitting victim of crime. Know your limits when drinking alcohol and never accept drinks from strangers. If traveling in a rental car, always appoint a designated driver; otherwise, take a “registered” taxi back to your hotel.
Watch the Strays
Brazil has many stray dogs and cats roaming the streets, many of which are feral and quite dangerous. Even if the animal looks friendly, resist the temptation to pet him/her, as many of these strays are infected with diseases, including rabies.
Although only people who have traveled to certain regions of the world are legally required to be vaccinated (for yellow fever) prior to entering Brazil, you may want to be on the safe side and receive certain vaccinations anyway. Check with your doctor regarding the vaccinations that would be appropriate when traveling to Brazil and don’t let a serious illness of some type ruin your long-awaited getaway.
Emergency Numbers in Brazil
People who live in the United States are taught at a very young age the phone number to dial in an emergency, in this case 911—a catch-all number for police, fire and medical emergencies. Brazil also has a system of easy-to-remember emergency numbers, which we have listed below for your protection. When traveling to Brazil you should ALWAYS keep a copy of these numbers on hand.
National Emergency Numbers Brazil
Medical Emergencies (Ambulância): Tel: 192
Fire Service (Corpo de Bombeiros): Tel: 193
Federal Police (Policía Federal): Tel: 194
Federal Highway Police (Policía Rodoviaria Federal): Tel: 191
State Highway Police (Policía Rodoviaria do Estado): Tel: 198
São Paulo Civil Police (Policía Civil do Estado de São Paulo): Tel: 197
São Paulo Military Police (Policía Civil do Estado de Sao Paulo): Tel: 190
Rio de Janeiro Civil Police (Policía Civil do Estado de Rio de Janeiro): Tel: 197
Rio de Janeiro Military Police (Policía Militar do Estado de Rio de Janeiro): Tel: 190