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How well is Brazil prepared for security challenges marching ahead of Rio Olympics 2016?

Published on 11 May, 2016

The largest global event of 2016 – and the year’s biggest security challenge – will no doubt be the Games of the XXXI Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Around 15,000 athletes from 206 countries are expected to compete at the Olympic games, August 5-21, 2016, and about 7.5 million tickets will be issued.

In our age of terrorism, organisers of any event on the scale of the Rio Olympics must consider the possibility of an attack or other security breach during the more than two weeks of the event. Ever since the 1972 Munich massacre, in which 11 Israeli Olympic team members were taken hostage and eventually killed (along with a German police officer), organisers of Olympic games have been keenly aware of the possibility of violence. The threat of terrorism raises the stakes even more.

Recent events aggravate concerns about the safety of the Olympics, including the deadly Paris terrorism attacks in November of 2015 and the Brussels bombings earlier in 2016. The big stage of the Olympics would provide a temptingly high profile to any group wishing to foment terror by attacking the game venues, facilities nearby, or the 500,000 tourists expected to attend.

Devoted to avoiding such a catastrophe will be a huge security effort at the Rio Olympics, including more than 85,000 forces – 47,000 Brazilian security professionals and 38,000 members of the armed services. An Anti-Terrorism Centre will promote sharing of information, training and knowledge among police, law enforcement and intelligence. Officials from more than 90 countries will work together on the effort. It will be the largest security operation in Brazilian history. In contrast, only 40,000 agents were used at the London Olympics in 2012.

Several additional factors could impact security in Rio in August. They include:

Devoted to avoiding a catastrophe
will be a huge security effort at the
Rio Olympics, including more than
85,000 forces – In contrast, only
40,000 agents were used at the
London Olympics in 2012

Need for awareness/ preparedness. Brazil has a history as a peaceful country, has no declared enemies, and has previously faced little threat of terrorism. It also has little intelligence expertise. Only recently did Brazil legislate to make terrorism a crime punishable by up to 24 years in prison. Might the South American country therefore be complacent to the possibility of an attack?

Border security. Geographically, Brazil has more than 14,000 miles (23,000 kilometres) of borders that are difficult to control, much of them through Amazon jungles. The largest country in South America, Brazil shares borders with 10 other countries, and lack of controls in unpopulated regions is one factor in Brazil’s historic struggles to combat drug and arms trafficking. A 90-day visa waiver during the games, approved by Brazil’s congress, will help to attract more tourists, but at what cost to security? (Waivers are limited to visitors from nations seen as low-risk, including the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan.)

Securing areas surrounding Olympic venues. Just steps from some of the largest Olympic venues are areas of Rio de Janeiro plagued by poverty and crime. Slums, or “favelas,” are within half a mile (less than 800 metres) of Maracana stadium, where opening ceremonies will kick off the games. Slums are also located near popular beaches and expensive hotels. Other problems of poverty – open sewage, destroyed houses and violence – are also concerns. Slums are controlled by drug traffickers and armed gangs, and police are few and inadequately armed. Many places are unsafe to walk at night.

Violent crime. Protecting the Olympics includes keeping the entire city safe. Brazil has about 52,000 murders a year, and there are around three per day in Rio. Crowd violence is often a problem at Brazilian soccer matches.

Budget cuts. In March, the government in Brazil decreased its security budget by 30 percent (about 550 million US dollars), with much of it targeting future investment. However, concern is that the cuts might undermine plans such as creation of an Urban Pacification Police in slum areas near the airport.

Brazil’s political climate. Brazil's president is facing possible impeachment, and the nation's economy is in a recession freefall; might additional security risks result from the crisis?

The Zika virus. Brazil has been hardest hit of any nation by the Zika virus, which is spread by mosquitoes and has particular risks for pregnant women and their unborn children. If the outbreak persists, might it cast a negative shadow over the Olympic games (or add another risk factor)?

To prepare to meet the security challenges of the Olympics, Rio officials have undertaken several initiatives, including:

Applying lessons they learned from hosting other big events. Large international events are not new to Brazil, which hosted the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the 2014 Va’a World Sprint Canoeing Championships, and the 2012 Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Brazil also has experience managing the large annual Carnival celebrations in Rio and elsewhere.

Technology to secure the Rio
Olympics includes a large
security command and control
center in downtown Rio.
Dozens of screens will display
views from thousands of
cameras installed throughout
city and in Olympic venues

Surveying best practices by visiting other locales where large events were held. Brazilian officials will use past Olympics games as models. Officials have also visited other locations that sponsored big events, such as the Tour de France and the Boston Marathon, to see what they can learn. Hundreds of Brazilian police visited the Pan-Am Games in Toronto last summer to learn newer techniques. They are also implementing best practices from other international events such as the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Beijing and the Baku 2015 European games. The Rio Olympics’ head of security traveled to Washington to increase cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security and other US agencies.

Creating a huge command and control centre. Technology to secure the Rio Olympics includes a large security command and control centre in downtown Rio, featuring walls covered with dozens of screens displaying views from thousands of cameras installed throughout city and in Olympic venues. Soldiers will control access to stadiums, X-ray machines and metal detectors.

Screening visitors as they arrive. Officials will receive real-time data about airport passengers as they check in from their country of origin.

As the days count down to the Rio Olympics, officials appear to be leaving very little to chance. However, with all attention focused on Rio during the Olympics, might the event be too tempting for a terrorist to resist? Given global threats and general security vulnerabilities, organisers of the Rio Olympics may need more than preparation to protect the games. They might need some luck, too. 

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