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When Brazilian police arrested 12 men last month on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack during the Olympic Games, the country reacted in the only way it knew how: by cracking jokes on Twitter.
“God, even terrorists in Brazil are lazy!” scoffed one student, ridiculing the group for never having met in person but using WhatsApp to communicate instead.
Others poked fun at them for being “amateurs”. According to Alexandre de Moraes, justice minister, the suspects participated in an online Isis initiation ceremony, discussed taking martial arts lessons and tried to buy an AK-47 assault rifle from Paraguay over the internet.
“Sounds more like [martial arts actor] Chuck Norris,” tweeted one Brazilian. Others mocked them for leaving their preparations for the Olympics to the last minute. “I bet you the AK-47 is still stuck in customs, along with the aftershave I ordered,” another quipped.
Brazilians’ light-hearted reaction to a potentially horrific attack is no surprise. Osama bin Laden masks are popular at carnival — proof that the concept of Islamist terrorism is alien to this outwardly pacifist country. The operation carried out ahead of this month’s games was Brazil’s first under its new antiterrorism laws.
The ridicule aimed at Brazil’s authorities over the operation is worrying. “The whole thing doesn’t really make much sense — if you want to get hold of a rifle you can hire one in Brazil for just R$3,000 ($918),” says Rafael Alcadipani, a researcher at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, who studies the police. The operation was, he says, a media spectacle staged by the government to show the world Brazil is taking the threat of terrorism seriously.
Endemic corruption and rule-breaking have left Brazilians resolutely cynical, and the recent political crisis has eroded their trust in the establishment further still. Some have suggested federal police set up the arrests to get one up on ABIN, Brazil’s intelligence agency. Others believe they invented the whole plot.
Then there are the bloggers who say Rio de Janeiro is simply not worth attacking. In one skit that went viral on Facebook, two terrorists try to blow up the city’s Christ the Redeemer statue. After they lose their luggage — and then get robbed, stuck in traffic and caught up in a favela shootout — they give up. “They weren’t sure if destroying Rio would be an act of terrorism or charity,” concludes the post.
Is Rio ready?
The problem exemplifies for some the country’s “complexo de vira-lata”, or “mongrel complex”, a term coined by writer Nelson Rodrigues to denote the feeling of inferiority that is considered a defining feature of the national psyche. Brazil, according to this belief, is not a “serious” country — in this case, not taken seriously even by terrorists.
However, perhaps the most sinister explanation for Brazilians’ nonchalant approach to terrorism is that they face terror on a daily basis. In the state of Rio alone, 13 people are murdered each day on average. Macabre crimes fill the newspapers. Take last Thursday as an example: there were reports of a woman who crushed a baby with a quad bike, a teenager who stabbed her boyfriend to death during sex, a 15-year-old who bottled a child and dumped him in a canal, a firefighter who shot dead a teacher in her classroom and numerous violent robberies. A normal day in Brazil.
“I still believe that domestic crime is a more concerning issue than the question of terrorism,” Mr de Moraes said last week about the games. Even though lone wolf terrorist acts should not be ruled out, he may have a point. In the past two weeks in Rio, the mother-in-law of Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula 1 boss, was kidnapped (and freed by police), a group of transvestites attacked an Australian television crew and a New Zealand ju-jitsu champion says he was abducted and robbed by armed police.
Rio’s gangs should leave visitors alone, at least. Grenade-wielding drug lords are feared worldwide but are likely to be focused on their core business during the Olympics. Last week, police even seized bags of cocaine bearing the Rio 2016 logo. In a sign that Brazil’s dark humour is shared by all, they came with the tongue-in-cheek warning: “Keep out of the reach of children.”