South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
The people of Brazil are fond of remarking that their country is free of war, terrorism, earthquakes and hurricanes — so laid back that even nature respects its pacifist ways.
But their relaxed attitude to external threats — the country’s last overseas conflict was a reluctant participation in the second world war — is alarming the country’s authorities, who are concerned that this year’s Olympic Games could attract not only the world’s leading athletes to Rio de Janeiro but its terrorists too.
“People really don’t have this awareness because we have never had a terrorist attack in Brazil,” said Admiral Ademir Sobrinho, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the Brazilian armed forces. “For this reason, we are training people, principally those who will deal directly with foreigners in Brazil, in how to detect signs of suspicious activity.”
With the games little more than a month away, Brazil is facing challenges ranging from a financial crisis affecting the Rio state government and the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus to unfinished infrastructure projects, such as an important metro link.
Concerns over security in Rio usually focus on the city’s crime rate. But while this remains high, the murder rate has fallen to a third of the level of 20 years ago and stood at 18.5 per 100,000 inhabitants last year — a rate similar to Miami’s. Policing of ordinary criminal activity also promises to be tight.
Terrorism is therefore likely to be the greatest security threat posed by the games. The city’s chaotic geography, where slums known as favelas are clustered on steep hills overlooking middle-class neighbourhoods, adds to the complexity of the problem. The favelas are often run by drug gangs with ample access to assault weapons brought in from neighbouring countries that are centres of the narcotics trade.
We are working with taxi drivers and hotel workers, bars, restaurants, shopping centres, airports and bus stations so that these people can have a perception of the risk and inform us
While there is no evidence that drug gangs would work with terrorists, they have already shown what their weapons can do — shooting down a police helicopter during a gunfight in the favelas in 2009.
“Clearly, any country that is going to host the Olympics, just by the history of the games, will transform itself into a potential terrorist target,” said Arthur Maia, a member of Congress and author of Brazil`s first terrorism law, passed earlier this year.
While intelligence agencies had not indicated a specific threat during the drafting of the law, he said, Brazil’s lawless border with Paraguay and Argentina was known to federal police as a haven for some of those involved in financing terrorism.
Abin, Brazil’s intelligence agency, has also said there are no specific threats to the country. But it recently warned Islamic State militants were attempting to recruit Brazilians, making contact in Portuguese through the Telegram messaging app.
The agency also warned in April that it had confirmed the authenticity of a threat last year by Maxime Hauchard, a French terror suspect alleged to have been among the executioners of 14 soldiers and a US aid worker in Syria, who said Brazil would be the “next target”.
Last November’s terror attack on Paris and the assault on an Orlando nightclub earlier this month showed the risk of terrorism was increasing, it said, adding: “The rise of attacks in foreign countries and the increase in the number of adherents to the Islamic State inside and outside Brazil are reasons [for this conclusion].”
Sidney Levy, chief executive of the Rio Olympics Organising Committee, said that the financial problems facing the Rio de Janeiro state government would not affect the security situation at the games.
Responding to a warning from the acting Rio governor that the Olympics could be a “big failure” and that police patrols might be suspended for lack of funds, Mr Levy said the governor was “trying to get the best for Rio”.
“The games are a big stage, so it is used by people to ask for things, to claim things, to protest, to defend, attack,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times. “He is using the Olympic platform to get funds to run the state.”
Brazil will also not be left to face the problem alone. As well as sport, the Olympics will be an international tournament of the world’s intelligence agencies, with Raul Jungmann, Brazil’s defence minister, saying last week that counterterror experts from 113 organisations, under Abin’s supervision, would be based in Rio during the games.
Brazil has also been working with the US and other countries on anti-terror strategies since the run-up to the 2014 soccer World Cup. “The US government facilitated visits [to the country] for Brazilian security personnel to observe our mega-event security management and command and control centres, including the Boston Marathon and the US Open,” said a US official.
The country expects about 700,000 tourists from 209 nations at the Olympics and Paralympics, as well as 12,000 athletes and 30,000 journalists. Up to 200,000 of the tourists and several hundred of the athletes are expected to come from the US — with this group seen by authorities as among prime targets for global jihadis.
To protect them, the armed forces will field 38,000 troops while the police and other paramilitary forces will supply tens of thousands more personnel. They would deploy resources ranging from frontline response units to tackle any attack to troops guarding major roads, said Admiral Sobrinho.
He rejected any suggestion that Rio’s parlous financial situation could affect security and denied its plethora of different police forces and agencies would lead to administrative chaos in policing an event of this size.
“We can`t forget that this is the six or seventh large event we have hosted in Rio,” he said, referring to the 2014 football World Cup and 2013 Confederations Cup, among others.
But “lone wolf” attack — such as the Orlando assault — remained one of the greatest threats, he said, creating a need to school ordinary people on how to sniff out a terrorist.
“We are working with taxi drivers and hotel workers, bars, restaurants, shopping centres, airports and bus stations so that these people can have a perception of the risk and inform us,” he added.