Security a top priority at Olympic Games, says Rio de Janeiro

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the city will be deploying 85,000 officers to secure events

María Martín
An aerial view of the Olympic tennis court in Rio de Janeiro.
An aerial view of the Olympic tennis court in Rio de Janeiro.EFE

Paulo Storani is a former captain of a Brazilian Military Police riot unit, but now works as a consultant for movies such as Tropa de élite (Elite troops), a film that shows the combat tactics used by security officers to pacify Rio de Janeiro slums. He has bought several tickets for the 2016 Olympic Games but he still does not know whether he will attend. “Until I see more from the authorities that shows me they’ll have control in the case of a terrorist threat, I will not take my family to any of the stadiums,” he explains. 

Rio de Janeiro has a high rate of violent crime, but it has also been successful at organizing large events

The Brazilian government says that everything is under control, but guaranteeing safety at the Olympic Games has become its main concern. In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, problems such as the polluted waters of Guanabara Bay, where the swimming competitions will take place, the unfinished metro system and other incomplete infrastructure have all taken a back seat.

Rio de Janeiro has a high rate of violent crime, but it has also been successful at organizing large events, including the World Cup and the 2013 papal visit. Although alarms have gone off, the government has not adjusted its strategic plan and budget for security. But no one is ruling out that possibility.

No visa required

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff approved a law on Tuesday to allow foreigners to enter the country without a visa for the duration of the Olympic Games. The measure is aimed at encouraging tourists from the United States, Japan, Australia and China, and helping to shore up the struggling economy. But some areas of the armed forces and the intelligence sector have not welcomed this news. Specialists such as Woloszyn say the law may not affect security but it has symbolic significance. “We are going in the opposite direction as the rest of the world. While most countries are increasing controls, we have decided to relax them.”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has publicly offered the support of his intelligence services to Brazilian authorities to help minimize risks, a gesture some experts interpreted as France diplomatically giving Brazil a clip round the ear. “Foreign officials are conscious of our vulnerability and it is obvious because they have offered help,” says André Luís Woloszyn, a specialist on the fight against terrorism. “It’s a way of telling us that we are not fully equipped.”

Brazil will deploy 85,000 police officers and soldiers to guarantee security at the Olympic Games, one of the biggest sports events ever held in Latin America. Since the security budget has not been made public, it is difficult to know whether the government needs to allocate more funds in light of recent terrorist attacks.

All organizations responsible for security, including police forces, the army, organizing committees, and the Justice and Defense Ministries, met on Wednesday with representatives from 78 countries. The meeting, scheduled before the Paris attacks, gave Brazil the opportunity to inform foreign delegations of its plan and relay this message: “Brazil is prepared to organize the games safely.”

Lone Wolves

Counter-terrorist strategy has always formed part of the security plan at any event, and Brazil has the support of friends such as France and the United States. Terrorism, however, is a threat that, in practice, Brazil – a country that has no counter-terror laws – has never had to face.

Although Woloszyn says a terrorist attack is a remote threat, he admits: “We have great experience organizing big events, we have officers who are prepared like those in any other country, but there is a risk factor and it’s that Brazil has no experience with this type of crime. When we look at the behavior of Islamic extremists, we can see that their actions are characterized by the selection of civilian targets in an ordinary urban environment, where there are no specific security measures, where there is no state of alert. An attack at the Games would be difficult and not at all beneficial to the Islamic State.”

Brazil is paying attention to everything, to terrorist organizations and lone wolves” Justice Minister Eduardo Cardozo

Besides flaws in security along its 17,000-kilometer border, Brazil is also vulnerable to “lone wolves” who, inspired by radical groups, act individually. “It’s a figure security agencies around the world analyze. Brazil is paying attention to everything, to terrorist organizations and lone wolves,” Justice Minister Eduardo Cardozo says.

The minister also underscored that the lone wolf is not a common phenomenon in Brazil, though evidence shows this does not prevent radical groups from gaining support in a country far from the conflicts in the Middle East. A few months ago, a federal police operation broke up a group led by a Lebanese citizen who had illegally sent 50,000 reales abroad to allegedly fund the terrorist organization. The members of that plot lived in Sao Paulo and shared ISIS videos on their Facebook profiles.

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