Dr. Jeffrey Cantor | Defense Coach University
Rio de Janeiro will host this summer’s Olympic Games from August 5th through the 21st. After years of planning, construction delays, political scandals, and ongoing medical crises, the question is how prepared is Rio for this event, and what security challenges can we expect this summer in Brazil?
Well over a half-million tourists and just under 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries are expected for the games. That means terrorists and criminals alike will have numerous opportunities to target both infrastructure and people.
A Terrorist Target?
As athletes and spectators gear up for the events, intelligence agencies such as Brazil’s ABIN believe that the threat of a terrorist attack is a very real possibility. In November 2015, ABIN received a credible threat to the nation’s security in the form of a tweet by French national Maxime Hauchard. Hauchard has been identified as an executioner in Islamic State propaganda videos. His tweet: “Brazil, you are our next target.”
Knowing that security for these events is critical, the venues will be watched by twice the number of security personnel present at the London 2012 Olympics in an effort to deter and detect any wrongdoing, especially terrorism.
Even with the presence of so many additional security guards and other security enhancements, it’s important to consider the porosity of Brazil’s borders with neighboring countries as a means of entry for terrorist actors.
Brazil’s rain forests are majestic for their many unique fauna, plants, and wondrous biodiversity. Yet, however magnificent the world’s largest tropical rainforest may be, it also provides a vast region for drug traffickers to infiltrate and cross into Brazil and other bordering countries undetected. Those same routes in the Amazon could also provide a path for terrorists stealthily attempting to enter Brazil unnoticed to wreak havoc and destruction during the Olympic games. And this represents only one method for terrorists to enter the country.
There is also the risk that terrorists could enter unrecognized with the immense population of foreigners that will be arriving in more conventional ways—as tourists.
Will the Islamic State Be A Factor?
Despite the fact that ABIN received a credible threat against state security, the intelligence community asks the question, “why broadcast a potential attack target via the airwaves in advance?”
After all, if terrorists have plans to send operatives to Brazil to launch an attack, would they really want their plans thwarted long before they perform pre-operational surveillance on the target or targets? It’s counter-intuitive, considering Brazil has not been actively engaged in fighting the Islamic State, like the United States and other coalition countries have.
Still, a terrorist attack is certainly a real concern, especially considering Brazil’s lack of experience with terrorism. The affinity of some of the country’s population to identify with the behavior of these radicals also causes a higher threat level. That means the potential for a Paris- or Brussels-like attack or other lone-wolf attack to slip under the radar cannot be ruled out.
Strategically, Brazil has aligned with other intelligence agencies, such as the United States and Israel, to assist with security gaps and to be a part of the security network monitoring potential people who may pose a danger. There are unquestionably some numbers of radical jihadists already living in Brazil. These actors may go unnoticed by the law enforcement community and would likely have limited resources and training. Taking into consideration the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, that does not make them less dangerous—it does, however, limit their capabilities to softer targets.
Street Crime Cannot Be Ignored
In addition to the possibility of an organized attack or one that is not connected to any known group, it’s important to consider what other more likely dangers are lurking for spectators and tourists during the summer games.
Statistically speaking, street crime will likely affect more people during the Rio summer games than terrorism. With Brazil facing an ever-mounting recession, street crime is the most formidable foe facing tourists, spectators, and vendors alike.
Brazil has traditionally been a hotbed for kidnapping. In recent times, the typology of this crime has diversified to include express and virtual kidnappings. The kidnappers’ modus operandi of targeting wealthy and classic “high-value” targets has expanded so that they also target average persons, some of whom endure rape and physical assaults that sometimes culminate in murder.
Speaking of murder, Brazil beats the United States hands down in that department with a murder rate many times higher than our own.
With the enormous increase in local population density in and around the four Olympic zones, there will also be a great deal of crimes of opportunity, such as robbery, muggings, and pick pocketing. The everyday movement of masses of people in specific areas of concentration, together with the enormous number of vendors and retailers that will be on every corner, will provide an atmosphere of unparalleled criminal opportunity.
Couple this with social media, making it easier for the criminals to select and carry out illegal activities, and technology to assist them in that environment… and you have a large-scale recipe for criminal enterprise.
More specifically, the concern areas will focus upon soft targets where tourists are more likely to let their guard down. This includes areas such as hotels, beaches, nightclubs, and other entertainment and socially oriented hot spots. And sadly, with so much of the security forces converging in the game zones to protect the athletes, spectators, and vendors, native Brazilians could suffer an increase in crime outside those areas due to reduced security presence.
Another important potential concern during any international event is protests. With a global audience watching and media everywhere, protestors can gain tremendous publicity for their cause during the Olympics.
Potential protestors may target sponsors or other aspects of the Olympics. The main challenge of protests is not so much violence, but the issue of disrupting activities, flow of movement, and traffic. This in turn presents security obstacles that then require manpower to overcome. Adding to this is the fact that Brazilian protests prior to the Olympic games have grown in recent years from smaller displays of public protest to massive rallies that congest city blocks.
And adding more fuel to the fire, just months into President Dilma Rousseff’’s second term, people were already calling for her resignation. While many in government believe that her impeachment was well orchestrated by “unknown” parties, Brazil’s senate removed President Rousseff following a senate vote in impeachment proceedings. She has been replaced by interim President Michel Temer. Her removal has stirred much controversy and begs the question of stability at a time when the country is already struggling to maintain balance.
This in and of itself could be enough impetus for further protests, both related and unrelated to the Olympics.
Traffic and Transportation are Concerns
There will also be health, medical, and safety concerns during the games. Vehicle-related deaths have traditionally ranked very high in Brazil amongst causes of death for foreign travelers. Of course, with the huge increase in local traffic, there will be even greater vehicular accidents than on average. Therefore, transportation arrangements should be a top priority for those planning to come to Rio during the summer games. The challenge is to be able to get those people involved in an accident to a medical center for treatment with a rapid response time if needed.
Zika: A New Deadly Threat
Outside of the normal safety and health concerns while traveling, such as food- and water-borne illnesses and Dengue fever, which afflicts Rio, those attending the 2016 Rio Olympics must add the Zika virus to their portfolio of concerns.
This African virus is a mosquito-borne sickness that causes flu-like symptoms and is linked to severe birth defects and newborn deaths when contracted by pregnant women. The virus has prevailed in Brazil for more than a year, with numerous outbreaks that have ravaged the population; however, victims typically report only mild to moderate flu-like symptoms. Tourists and athletes alike will need to work on preventative and sanitary measures or, if infected, comprehensive palliative care to minimize the impact of pain and symptoms and to prevent spread of the virus to others.
Although the World Health Organization (WHO) has called for the games to be moved from Rio due to the Zika threat, it appears at this point that the games will move forward. It’s important to remember that with greater resources at the local level because of the Olympics, authorities in Brazil can more effectively deal with cases as they come in, as opposed to adopting the infamous reactive measures so commonly seen when there is public outcry.
So, How Safe Will Rio Really Be?
Hosting the Olympics requires an astonishing effort for any country. Despite the uncertainty associated with this large-scale venue, Brazil has already implemented security measures, such as information sharing between intelligence agencies and increasing the sheer numbers of security personnel for the duration of the games. Brazil hosted the 2015 World Cup soccer tournament without any major incidents. Training and countermeasures to prevent and detect possible terrorist attacks for the Olympics began some time ago and will go a long way to mitigating the risk.
This same security apparatus will likely protect against street crime and protests, though these crimes are likely in Brazil to occur regardless of the security effort.
While no security measures are foolproof, protective actions that will be in place will be proportional to provide for a safe, enjoyable Olympic experience for both athletes and spectators.