The Brazilian government, presidential scandals aside, is focused on ensuring that the upcoming Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro occur successfully and peacefully. The event is expected to attract between 350 to 500 thousand foreign tourists, not counting the 10 thousand athletes that will compete in 42 different sports. The question is: what security-related incident is Brasilia trying to prevent?
The obvious answer is some type of terrorist operation, with the 2015 attacks in Paris and Brussels by ISIS serving as a recent and tragic precedent. In fact, the Paris attacks occurred while a friendly soccer match between France and Germany was taking place at the Stade de France. Moreover, there is already the precedent of one successful terrorist attack during an Olympic event: the 1972 Munich attacks carried out by the Palestinian Black September group, which killed 11 Israeli Olympian athletes and one German police officer.
In order to prepare for the worst-case scenario, the Brazilian security and defense forces will carry out an unprecedented operation. Brazilian Defense Minister Aldo Rebelo announced in March that 38 thousand military personnel will be deployed, with 20 thousand in Rio itself, not counting personnel from other security agencies. According to the Brazilian Defense Ministry, Rio will be divided into four defense command sections (CDS Deodoro, CDS Maracana, CDS Copacabana and CDS Barra da Tijuca) in order for the security forces to better monitor the Olympic venues. Rio certainly appears to be ready for the Olympics from a security perspective as the defense commands are training for any type of incident, be it a terrorist attack or even nuclear, radiological or biological threats.
Nevertheless, this preparedness program has not been scandal-free. Case in point: In late March, Colonel Adilson Moreira from the National Force for Public Security resigned after sending an e-mail to his colleagues that was critical of President Dilma Rousseff.
It is worth noting that, some protests aside, the Brazilian government has successfully organized major sporting events in recent years, namely the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Moreover, Gustavo Palhares, a partner at Furriela Advogados (a São Paulo law firm with a branch in Washington DC), told me that “for the past decade, the city and state of Rio have invested in security, particularly to ‘pacify’ the favelas [shantytowns]; although crime has not disappeared in Rio, the city is more prepared than ever to host the Olympic Games.”
Indeed, as Palhares explained, rather than some terrorist attack à la Munich 1972, the major concern regarding the upcoming Games is crime, i.e., the possibility of tourists or athletes being robbed (or worse) by the city’s numerous gangs. Unfortunately, there have been recent incidents that stress this possibility. For example, in January, four people were killed and 11 were injured when criminals attacked a bar in Rio’s western area, in Vargem Pequena. Then, in mid-March, a member of a Pacifying Police Unit (Unidad de Policia Pacificadora, UPP) was murdered by unknown bandits in broad daylight during a routine patrol. Finally, and in an ironic development, Lieutenant-Colonel Murilo Angelloti of the Copacabana division of the Military Police (BPM) was recently the victim of a robbery. When he left his home on Sunday, April 3, three men held him at gunpoint and stole his car. Palhares clarified that “these crimes occurred in areas of the city where the Games will not take place.”
The aforementioned examples demonstrate that crime in Rio has been contained, rather than completely eradicated. Certainly, it would be naïve to believe that crime in a city like Rio (with a population of well over six million) could be fully solved via the pacification operations.
Ultimately, it is necessary to place potential crimes (not terrorist attacks) during the Olympics in the context of Brazil’s current tense political situation. Should foreign tourists or Olympian athletes be mugged, as Palhares explains, this will negatively affect President Dilma Rousseff’s image, “especially at a moment when she is in a political war to save her presidency.” While the possibility of a terrorist attack in Rio is arguably extremely remote, even a wave of robberies may be enough to hurt the president.