Security Forces Prepare for World Cup in a Restive Brazil

The possibility of massive street protests — a contingency that was scarcely part of initial World Cup security planning — is now front and center.

by Mimi Whitefield, McClatchy News Service / April 24, 2014
Estádio do Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro Flickr/Jose Fernandes Jr.

Drones, bomb-detecting robots, camera glasses, rubber bullets and sound and light grenades will all be at the ready if Brazilian police need them to quell disturbances during the FIFA World Cup.

The Brazilian military also has a contingency plan in case President Dilma Rousseff calls it to the streets. But the military’s main role will be to secure stadiums, the skies, the waters and public utilities, and guard against any terrorist threats during the June 12 through July 13 event.

The possibility of massive street protests — a contingency that was scarcely part of initial World Cup security planning — is now front and center after some 1 million Brazilians demonstrated in June during the FIFA Confederations Cup, considered a dress rehearsal for the world’s premier soccer event.

Violence in Brazil’s shantytowns, or favelas, also is a possibility during the Copa as security forces continue an effort to take back the streets from criminal gangs in neighborhoods where emotions are already on edge.

For the World Cup, 150,000 police and members of the armed forces will be involved and another 20,000 people trained in event security, according to Andrei Rodrigues of Brazil’s Ministry of Justice.

“By my calculations, that’s a force that is three times as much as you would normally see for a World Cup. That’s a gigantic number,” said Frank Holder, Latin American chairman for FTI Consulting, a global business advisory firm.

While the manpower is certainly adequate, Holder said, the big questions are how well trained these security forces are, how well they will work together and how well they deploy their technology.

In the past year, the demonstrations, which have sporadically turned deadly with clashes between police and protesters, property set ablaze and attacks on banks and other businesses, have continued — though on a more limited scale.

What began as a protest against an increase in transit fares has evolved into a catch-all of simmering discontent at everything from government corruption to the $3.58 billion price tag for building and renovating World Cup stadiums. Generalized dissatisfaction with the healthcare system, mediocre public education and inadequate public transit also has been a catalyst for protests.

With the world’s eyes trained on Brazil during the World Cup, few expect demonstrators to sit quietly at home.

Plans call for keeping them 1.24 miles away from arenas. A fleet of drones made in Israel will be used to monitor conditions in both the stadiums and cities, and the skies over arenas will be no-fly zones, closed off to aircraft one hour before and three hours after games.

“Our legislation allows us to shoot down unidentified aircraft,” said Brig. Gen. Ubiratan Poty, chief of the Amazon Military Command Operations Center in Manaus. It controls military operations in four states in the Amazon as well as acts against drug trafficking, arms smuggling and environmental crimes in the border region to the north.

Counter-terrorism units will be stationed at the arenas but won’t be visible to fans, Poty said.

Intelligence operations also have been stepped up in an effort to ferret out potentially violent, masked demonstrators who called themselves “Black blocs.”

“A lot of the battle can be won through intelligence operations and preventive actions,” Holder said.

But FIFA officials said they don’t believe the soccer event itself will be the main target of demonstrators.

Despite the potential for unrest in the streets, “that does not mean to say that we are going to reduce our presence, hide ourselves away or keep our symbols under cover,” said Ralf Mutschke, FIFA’s director of security, during a February workshop for the 32 national teams participating in the tournament.

Brazilian officials say their goal isn’t to prevent demonstrations but rather to prevent them from turning violent. “We’re a democratic country and the freedom to demonstrate is a democratic right,” said Luis Fernandes, Brazil’s deputy minister of sports. “We lived too long under a military dictatorship,” he said, for it to be any other way.

Brazil has spent about $848 million to beef up public security in the 12 World Cup host cities.

Each now has a state-of-the-art command center that will be linked electronically and via cameras with its arena. Representatives of city agencies, the armed forces, and city, state and federal police will have a seat in these centers during the World Cup.

Historically, it’s been difficult to bring all these parties together, so the new command centers “will have a tangible but also intangible benefit,” Fernandes said.

In the future, the command centers will be used to coordinate other big events and to respond to natural disasters, such as storms and flooding.

Smoke grenades, tear gas, light and sound grenades, rubber bullets, shields, helmets and boots have been purchased and will be used by law enforcement “proportional to the threat,” Poty said.

The Brazilian arsenal for the World Cup and beyond also includes camera glasses and 30 robots with sensors capable of detecting hazmet, chemical, biological, bomb and radiation threats and defusing bombs.

But Poty said the first line of defense against violence will be local police.

The armed forces will only be employed in a law enforcement capacity if Rousseff authorizes them to go in as she did recently in Salvador, also a World Cup host city, when a police strike led to civil unrest and looting. Some 2,500 army troops were sent to the city in northeastern Brazil.

Asked if Brazilian officials were anticipating fan violence, Poty said it was unlikely except perhaps in southern Brazil, which shares a border with Argentina: “We expect something could happen in the South because Argentine fans are very aggressive. We hope that intelligence would be able to pick up on the potential for this.”

Though not directly related to World Cup security, for the past several years military police from the state of Rio de Janeiro and the armed forces have been systematically moving into poor Rio neighborhoods to drive out criminal gangs. Police Pacification Units, known by their Portuguese acronym as UPPs, then provide long-term policing.

Among the areas that have been pacified is Complexo do Alemão, a grouping of favelas that lines the highway from Rio’s international airport to the beachfront hotels. A military force of 3,000 with tanks and armed vehicles invaded the area in 2010 to reclaim it from drug traffickers and stayed for more than a year before a UPP was formed.

With just seven weeks to go before the World Cup, violence broke out Tuesday night in another area of Rio that will be frequented by soccer fans.

Residents of the Pavão-Pavãozinho favela, who blamed police for the death of a popular young male dancer, clashed with the local UPP, set fires and tossed homemade explosives and bottles down on the streets of Copacabana, one of the city’s main beachfront tourist areas.

Rio is the venue for seven World Cup matches, including the final.

Such potential for violence means there is a risk for Brazil in hosting the World Cup, according to Moody’s Investors Service. “While the World Cup offers potential reputational benefit, Brazil’s image would be marred by a reprise of the social unrest seen last June during … the Confederations Cup,” Moody’s said.

While last year’s protests caused little disruption at soccer venues, elsewhere they “escalated to riots that seriously disrupted regional retail sales due to early store closings, traffic problems and episodes of looting and vandalism,” Moody’s noted.

In its latest Latin American Public Security Index, FTI gave Brazil a rating of 4 on a scale where a 5 is a very dangerous country. “Significant resources have been deployed in the face of the upcoming World Cup and later Olympics, but overall public insecurity rates remain stubbornly high,” FTI said.

It cited a resurgence in crime in Sao Paulo as well as in the major cities of northeast Brazil and the rivalry between the country’s two largest criminal groups, Comando Vermelho and Primeiro Comando da Capital.

And as Tuesday night’s riot in Rio shows, there is a potential for things to get out of control very quickly. The use of social media, with its ability to motivate crowds, is very prevalent in Brazil.

“That’s very difficult for security forces to deal with,” Holder said. “It makes things incredibly fluid.”

©2014 The Miami Herald