Amid an uptick in violent crime and deepening economic crisis, Brazilian officials plan to secure Rio de Janeiro during the Olympics with the deployment of 85,000 soldiers and police. While this virtual army of security is expected to keep criminal elements at bay during the games, the city’s long-term security outlook remains bleak.
Officials have hinted that the massive deployment will include the temporary occupation of several of Rio’s large, marginalized favela neighborhoods in an effort to keep the organized criminal gangs based in those areas at bay during the games.
Muggings of athletes have sparked concerns about crime and safety during the August Olympic and September Paralympic Games. On June 19, two members of the Australian Paralympic team were mugged in Rio de Janeiro while training for the upcoming games. The incident did not take place in an isolated part of the city late at night, but rather at 7:30 a.m. near Flamengo beach in Rio’s wealthy southern neighborhoods. Previously, three members of the Spanish Olympic sailing team were mugged in the city in May.
After the latest mugging, Australia’s Olympic team urged Brazilian authorities to implement their Olympics security strategy earlier than anticipated. With the opening ceremony set for August 5, however, a cash-strapped Rio government declared a “state of calamity” on June 17 amid a security and economic crisis, warning that it did not have the funds to complete a number of construction projects and guarantee public security.
Rio state has since been extended a lifeline in the form of a $850 million emergency loan from the US government. But with shootouts between police and organized crime groups occurring almost daily in the city — including in the vicinity of a number of Olympic venues — not everyone is convinced. Former Brazilian football superstar Rivaldo has publicly advised foreigners against attending the games. And on June 28, the BBC reported that off-duty police officers stood in the arrivals area of Rio de Janeiro’s international airport holding a large banner that said “Welcome to Hell. Police and firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe.”
Mugging incidents involving foreign athletes are symptomatic of a much wider security crisis affecting Rio de Janeiro city and state. Since the start of 2016, there has been a significant increase in violent crime in Rio. According to an O Globo report, homicides across the state have increased by 15 percent since the beginning of the year. O Dia reported that the state registered a 28 percent increase in deaths linked to assaults in the first quarter of 2016.
Shootouts between police officers and organized crime groups have also risen drastically. Citing an intensification of territorial disputes between the city’s three largest crime groups — Comando Vermelho (Red Command – CV), Terceiro Comando Puro (Pure Third Command – TCP), and Amigos dos Amigos (ADA) — Folha reported that 192 police officers had been shot at in the city in the first six months of 2016, a significant increase from 108 officers shot in the same period in 2015, and 61 in 2014.
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According to Rio crime monitoring blog, Pauta do Dia, 55 off- and on-duty police officers had been killed in 2016 by June 28, compared to 12 in the first five-and-a-half months of 2015. Perhaps indicative of the city’s failing security strategy, over a third of attacks against police officers in 2016 have reportedly occurred in what authorities refer to as “pacified” favelas.
Outside of the hilltop favelas, a number of shootouts have also occurred in the vicinity of Olympic venues soon to be frequented by foreign tourists and athletes. Shootouts between organized crime groups and police have been reported near the iconic Maracanã stadium, Barra da Tijuca’s Olympic Park, and near the Christ the Redeemer statue, with one incident even resulting in the temporary closure of a metro station in northern Rio.
In the most brazen attack, 20 CV-affiliated criminals stormed the Souza Aguiar hospital in downtown Rio armed with assault rifles and grenades to rescue a local crime boss under police guard in the facility. The attackers killed a patient in the process. The hospital had previously been designated as one of the five recommended facilities to treat tourists during the games.
An increase in crime in Rio comes on the back of a deepening economic crisis, which has precipitated several security budget cuts. Heavily dependent on oil revenues, the state government’s coffers have been hit hard by the fall in the global price of oil. In March, the Rio de Janeiro’s government announced a 32 percent cut to the state’s security budget, and state Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame warned that investment in public security was “virtually zero.”
Since March, reports have emerged of further budget cuts affecting police stations, with some officers now allegedly bringing their own toilet paper and water to work. Disgruntled over salary payment delays, police and civil servants in the city went on strike in April. Although the recent federal bailout of the Rio government may have staved off a complete economic and security collapse ahead of the games, doubts remain about the city’s overall Olympics and post-Olympics security strategy.
Funding cuts have necessitated several modifications of the city’s Olympics security strategy. Having previously announced the impending occupation of a number of favelas in the city in time for the Olympics, the local government has since scaled back its security plans. However, in May, Beltrame suggested that the army would temporarily occupy six of the city’s favelas during the games.
With this constant back and forth, it is unclear whether the Executive Committee of Integrated Regional Security (Comitê Executivo de Segurança Integrada Regional), which is overseeing security preparations for the sporting events, has a concrete security plan six weeks out from the games. However, Beltrame has made it clear that Rio’s police will need army and federal police reinforcements to guarantee security during the Olympics and Paralympics.
SEE ALSO: Brazil News and Profiles
Acting Rio Governor Francisco Dornelles recently asked the federal government to deploy the army in the city for three months starting on July 24 — much longer than previously envisioned.
Despite these constraints, an estimated 85,000 security force personnel, including 38,000 soldiers, are set to be deployed across the city. They will reportedly have the support of an Israeli military-grade satellite already hovering high above the city and capable of monitoring suspicious individuals, objects, and vehicles. Monitoring and deployment will focus on areas in and around Olympic venues, as well as key access corridors like Linha Vermelha, Linha Amarela, Avenida Brasil, and Galeão International Airport.
But for the most part, the Rio government has opted for quantity over quality in its bid to ensure safe and secure games. The sheer number of soldiers and police officers in the city is likely to significantly mitigate the threat of violent crime, including assaults and homicides. Possible favela occupations could also keep organized crime groups at bay, at least temporarily.
However, beyond the closing ceremonies, public security in Rio is likely to remain a long-term issue. With the state and national economies in deep recession, further funding for a much-needed security overhaul in Rio is unlikely any time soon. As such, the current upward trend in homicides and other violent crime, as well as the resurgence of organized crime groups, is expected to resume after the Olympics.
*Lloyd Belton is a political and country risk analyst at the consulting firm S-RM.