RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Not even a day after his arrival in Rio de Janeiro and just hours after attending the Brazil-England soccer friendly at the city’s legendary Maracana stadium, a sports columnist for the Daily Mail newspaper was held up at knifepoint as he strolled along Copacabana Beach.
Adrian Durham darted into oncoming traffic to get away, and in the end the would-be mugger didn’t make off with anything. But the June 2 incident, which Durham described in a recent column, has served as a warning for the tens of thousands of foreign visitors expected to flood into Brazil for this week’s Confederations Cup soccer tournament.
It’s only the first of a series of high-profile events Rio’s is gearing up to host, among them a papal visit in July, next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
Security has long been a major problem in Brazil, where heavily armed drug lords control swaths of territory that are off-limits to law enforcement and where petty crime often turns fatal. As part of its Olympic bid, Brazil’s government pledged to curb the violence, and major strides have been made in recent years, particularly in Rio, where the police are now present in more than 200 hillside “favela” slums.
But the country still has an alarmingly high murder rate, and knife- and gun-point muggings, carjackings and armed robberies continue to be facts of daily life. Rio alone has seen a spate of recent incidents, including the March gang rape of an American student aboard a public transit van and the shooting last Saturday of a Brazilian engineer who, because of faulty signs, took a wrong turn and drove into an unpacified favela.
Brazilian officials have brought in drones, thermal cameras and thousands of troops to patrol the six stadiums hosting Confederations Cup events. But experts say visitors like Durham will be immediately vulnerable once they venture away from secured areas, and in fact, may run even a greater risk than usual, with many police having been called off their regular street duties to patrol the stadiums’ environs.
“Street lighting and police presence need to be stepped up dramatically before the World Cup — and then the Olympics — come here,” Durham wrote in his column. “Attitudes need to change — locals clearly just accept that crime happens and have no desire to tackle it.”
Brazil’s epidemic of everyday violence makes ensuring security at the upcoming mega-events doubly complicated: Not only must officials plan for threats such as terrorism that overshadow any event of global scale, they also have to keep a lid on day-to-day violence, which some observers predict could reach a fever pitch with the influx of an estimated 60,000 foreign tourists.
Officials said they’ve already deployed the most extensive security apparatus ever in Brazil for the Confederations Cup, a two-week tournament that’s regarded as a dry run for next year’s World Cup.
“We are strongly concerned with ensuring safety and security to all our athletes, tourists, heads of state and delegations,” Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo told reporters on a conference call earlier this week. “Special attention is given to this matter particularly in light of prior tragedies” like the slaying of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the Boston Marathon bombings in April.
Some 45,000 personnel will be deployed in the tournament’s six host cities, according to SESGE, the government agency created in 2011 to coordinate security at the mega-events. That means a hodgepodge of Brazilian law enforcement agencies, from federal and state police officers to municipal guards to highway patrol, will be patrolling key sites such as airports and stadium surroundings. Inside the venues, world soccer’s governing body, FIFA, will rely on private guards.
According to SESGE, one guard will be assigned for every 50 spectators at the matches, which kick off on Saturday when Brazil plays Japan in the tournament’s opening game in the capital, Brasilia. In addition to 3,500 military police officers, the security detail at Saturday’s match will also include a battalion of riot police with two armored vehicles, a canine unit of sniffer dogs trained to detect drugs and explosives as well as eight sharpshooters, said Fabio Pizetta, the head of Brazilia’s riot police division.
The crackdown will also make use of the latest technology, with stadium fly-overs by Air Force fighter jets and helicopters kitted out with surveillance equipment including high-resolution, night-vision and thermal cameras, SESGE has said. Nearby buses will receive the surveillance images and help coordinate any police response.
The police have also been purchasing unmanned drones, which they may deploy during Pope Francis’ July 22-28 visit to Rio, as well as during the World Cup, media reports have suggested.
In total, the government is expected to invest around $550 million in public security for the Confederations Cup and the World Cup, according to SESGE.
Despite the investment, security experts’ assessments of the Brazilian strategy remain mixed.
Joe Biundini, who heads the FAM International Group security firm, said he didn’t anticipate any issues inside the stadiums but was worried about the potential terror threat posed by Brazil’s porous, 15,700 kilometer-long land border. Although Brazil has never before been the target of an international terror attack, he said, the Boston Marathon bombings showed big sporting events are vulnerable.
“The borders aren’t as secure as they could be. Right now, the door to Brazil is wide open,” said Biundini, a Brazilian-born former U.S. Marine whose company has studied security risks in the Confederations Cup.
Biundini added that the terror threat could come from the notoriously crime ridden tri-border region where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet.
“There’s real potential there for the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction” through the area, he said.
With public security forces concentrated around the stadiums, public transit hubs and other outlying areas could become more vulnerable to potential attacks, as well as to petty criminals, Biundini said.
Authorities have promised to beef up personnel at airports by more than 75 percent during the Confederations Cup, but ground has yet to be broken on many planned renovations aimed at making the host cities’ cramped, outdated airports safer and more comfortable.
“I think the plan they have in place is good on paper, but whether it actually works will depend on communication” between at least 12 different government agencies with roles in the security detail, Biundini said. “They’ll certainly make lots of mistakes (during the Confederations Cup) but hopefully they’ll learn from them for the World Cup.”