Cops and rifle-toting troops are thick on the ground: 47,000 police officers, 38,000 soldiers, 3,000 sailors. That’s double the deployment of the London Games four years ago, making Rio the most militarized Olympics on record. (The armed forces took over public security in the city last weekend.)
And still, critics accuse Brazil of doing security on the cheap. Justice Ministry figures peg security costs at a ridiculously low $200 million — after half a billion dollars was reportedly slashed from the original budget. Then the federal government stepped in, “lending” Rio $890 million in emergency aid, primarily to pay all those cops and soldiers.
Still, the penny-pincher imputation so stung authorities that, just on Tuesday, 630 more personnel were added to the street-level roster. Further, 24-hour supervision has been imposed around the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio — considered a symbolic magnet for the malevolent-minded.
Since the Munich massacre committed against Israeli athletes and coaches, it has always been thus, the anxiety over fanatics seizing the stage, an apprehension ratcheted up tenfold after 9/11 and stoked to fever pitch by recent terrorist missions in Europe. Yet the sole Olympics-centred violence since Munich in 1972 was the Atlanta bombing in 1996 that killed one and injured 111.
Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes has sought to allay fears by pronouncing the chances of a terrorist attack at the Games as “next to zero,” and the bigger concern street crime. The day after he made that comment, federal police arrested 10 Brazilians allegedly belonging to a cell that had pledged its allegiance to Daesh. “Amateurs,” sniffed de Moraes.
But amateurs — the lone wolves, the deranged and benighted — have caused wide-ranging havoc in the past year. And the Olympics are perhaps a target too attractive for the blood-spillers to ignore.
In fact, Brazil ranks a lowly 74th on the Global Terrorism Index, put out annually by the Institute for Economics and Peace. Yet it’s this very inexperience with terrorist calamity that has perpetuated concerns about Brazil’s ability to manage the threat.
The country hosted the 2014 World Cup and Rio every year mounts bedazzling Mardi Gras festivities without surrendering to security hysteria. The Games, though — held for the first time in South America — pose unparalleled logistical and intelligence challenges, wherever they land.
At the Salt Lake City Olympics, held a mere five months after 9/11, an AWAC patrolled the skies. In Athens, Patriot missile launchers were positioned on the hills outside the city. Beijing was an utter lockdown, civilians without tickets kept behind chain-link fences so that they could only peer at venues from a distance. Sochi was a security gulag.
Freewheeling Rio just doesn’t feel like a garrisoned Olympic host city, for all the window-dressing muscle on the streets.
To a large extent, it’s about putting on a security show within The Biggest Show on Earth because, while the spectacular attacks on Olympic venues can be interdicted, thwarting the lone assailant driving a truck into a crowd of strollers on a city boulevard is near impossible.
The façade of tactical readiness is being maintained with well-publicized military drills on beaches, subway trains and around Olympic facilities. The athletes village, far from the inner-city hub, is a self-contained Alcatraz. Risk to the 18,000 competitors, coaches and support staff is relatively slight. Many nations have sent private security to guard their teams.
It’s ordinary people, visitors and cariocas alike, who can’t be so thoroughly protected, whether from terrorist attack or the local criminal element.
Calling a cop in the event of danger might not be such a smart idea, either. Activists recently delivered 40 “body bags” to the headquarters of the Olympic Organizing Committee, representing the number of people killed by police here in May.
The bristling arms presence is part and parcel of a security blanket that begins with biometric scanning at Rio’s airport. Didn’t instill much confidence, however, when a pair of Brazilian fighter jets on manoeuvres just off the coast crashed into each other a week ago. That was an unexpected $8-million blunder added to the bill. (Both pilots survived.)
A warship trawls slowly back and forth across Copacabana Bay.
Somewhere overhead, eyes-in-the-sky monitors — drones, three blimps and balloons anchored 200 metres above ground — have begun providing real-time video surveillance over an area of about 40 square kilometres, with operators able to aim cameras in all directions, zooming in on suspicious individuals and vehicles.
We’ve all been repeatedly assured that Big Brother, Big Cop, Big Soldier — plus 6,200 closed circuit cameras placed throughout the city — are looking out for our safety. But do they really have a clue what they’re doing or what they’re trying to prevent?
An investigation by the Wall Street Journal found that Brazil’s government waited until July 1 to award the contract to recruit and deploy thousands of security guards at Olympic venues. Question: Who screened the screeners, given that they’ve only had weeks to learn the job? The security contract for the 2010 Vancouver Games was awarded 10 months in advance.
Did we mention the threat of kidnapping for ransom? It’s a thriving business hereabouts, categorized into several varieties: “Quicknapping,” where thugs force individuals to withdraw money from multiple ATMs before releasing them, thanks-and-off-you-go; “express kidnappings,” with abductors demanding fast payoffs in the $500-$2,000 range from victims’ families; and “virtual kidnapping,” where gangs get their grubby fingers on banking information via credit card and ATM transactions.
Just the other day, an Australian TV crew was nearly robbed of their camera gear — police intervened — by a gang of cross-dressers on Copacabana Beach.
Zika. Gun-toting hoodlums. Corrupt cops. Murder mayhem.
Really, for most of us in this pulsating city, terrorism phobia doesn’t even crack the Top 10 in alarm decibels.
And as the sun sets gloriously over Copacabana Bay, surfers paddling back to shore, the hazards of a Rio Games feel a million miles away.