Brazil Pins Hopes on World Cup Win to Defuse Protest Threat

March 24, 2014

São Paulo, March 25, 2014: When questions are asked about security at international events, they usually focus on the threat of terrorism. But Brazil, host of this year’s World Cup, never does anything by halves. Or even thirds. For the security issues at soccer’s biggest event cover not just one area but at least three. In addition to the usual questions over terrorism, there are thorny issues of violent crime and the country’s very high murder rate, as well as the possibility of a repeat of the social protests that brought millions of people onto the streets last year.

“It is fairly rare (for one host to face three different threats) but you have to prepare for them all as any one of them could emerge,” said Raymond S. Mey, senior program manager for the Soufan group and a security consultant at eight Olympic games. “You have to prepare and plan and you have to be ready.”

Until last June, much of Brazil’s security preparations were based on possible outside threats. Brazil has never faced any serious terrorist-related incidents and reports that Hezbollah or al Qaeda financiers run money through the west of the country have never been proven. But now, as authorities take every precaution in preparing to host Brazil’s first major sporting event since the World Cup in 1950, most experts believe the focus is on security risks of a domestic rather than international nature.

The federal government has promised to invest 1.88 billion reais, or around US$785 million, on security and legacy infrastructure based around crime prevention. Much of it is going on federal, regional and mobile command and control centres that will be used to oversee policing and coordinate responses to any security issues. A large amount is also for the training of law enforcement personnel for the event, which kicks off on June 12. Around 100,000 people will be involved in security, 10,000 of them members of the Força Nacional, a group of police officers, fire fighters and technical staff who have been specially trained in anti-riot techniques.

Concerns about domestic threats derive from how several matches in last year’s Confederations Cup – won by Brazil – were played against a backdrop of riotous protests and pitch battles between demonstrators and police. The unrest bubbled up on the eve of the tournament when police in Sao Paulo overreacted to protests against an increase in bus fares. Largely peaceful demonstrations were halted with tear gas, rubber bullets and percussion grenades and the police’s heavy handedness sparked a wave of anger that quickly engulfed the whole country.

Within days, hundreds of thousands of people were parading in scores of Brazilian cities against police violence, inefficient and underfunded public services and massive spending on football stadiums. Protesters attempted to march on several stadiums but were pushed back by riot police.

When the tournament ended, the protests were taken up by anarchist groups known as the Black Blocs, who vandalised banks, harassed journalists and attacked police. Although that violence scared off mainstream protesters who had made the rallies the biggest popular demonstrations in two decades, the Black Blocs are still active and considered a real threat come June.

The Black Blocs are small in number, but they are motivated and violent. Almost all the recent protests were organised or hijacked by the Black Blocs and ended in confrontation. In February, a Rio de Janeiro cameraman was killed when hit by a firework fired by a Black Bloc protester. It was the first death directly attributable to the group.

The crime caused outrage and could lead to a clampdown. Yet there is still a big chance that protests will erupt in June and July – especially if Brazil does not win, leaving many Brazilians feeling they have nothing to show for the colossal investment. “No one will be surprised if there are protests, the danger is more that security forces will overreact and you could see mass arrests and police brutality,” said Adam Isacson, a Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Another, perhaps less serious, concern is about possible action by the country’s own organised crime groups. Several drug trafficking groups operate in Rio and Sao Paulo and while many of them – particularly in Rio – are hardly sophisticated, they can cause chaos. Rio’s drug groups have brought the city to a standstill several times before with high-profile killings and well-aimed threats. Sao Paulo First Capital Command, a gang that controls much of the prison system as well as the drug trade, have gone even further. In 2001, they took thousands of hostages when they seized control of dozens of prisons on visiting day. And in 2005, they turned large parts of a city of more than 20 million into a ghost town when an effective curfew was imposed amid attacks on police and law enforcement reprisals.

The same group were last year caught on wire taps promising a “World Cup of terror.” No one really knows how serious that threat is but it has focused government attention and they are monitoring the groups closely in the run-up to the tournament, said Andrei Rodrigues, the government’s national secretary for security at major events.

“Any threat from groups that want to derail the World Cup are important and we won’t ignore them,” Rodrigues said. “We have intensified our cooperation with state police and we have exchanged information with prison authorities. It’s all about doing intelligence work ahead of time to avoid any issues later.”

One last concern is street crime and hooliganism. Brazil is anxious to keep tourists safe from common criminals, many of whom carry guns. The homicide rate in Brazil is 27.1/100,000, according to official studies. Opportunist thieves may see unsuspecting visitors as an easy mark.

Police will be equally vigilant about possible hooligans. Rodrigues said Brazil has ramped up cooperation with FIFA and foreign law enforcement to combat potential fan violence. It is cross-checking names of hooligans with fans who bought tickets on the FIFA web site and it expects foreign law enforcement to stop known troublemakers from boarding planes bound for South America.

FIFA’s secretary general, Jerome Valcke, has emphasised that nothing is more important than looking after fans. They should not fear but they should be vigilant. Like football itself, when the World Cup comes around, anything can happen.