We’ve written about Brazil’s security situation before, right before the 2014 World Cup. While things looked worrisome at the time, the futebol celebrations thankfully unfolded without any major incident. Now, as the world looks forward to the 2016 Summer Olympics, many of the security problems that plagued the Latin American powerhouse are still relevant. And there are some new ones, too.
Since then, the Brazilian recession has deepened precipitously. The value of the Brazilian real has dropped like a bomb against the US dollar. Oil giant Petrobas is under investigation in a massive scandal. And President Dilma Rousseff faces impeachment.
So, what should travelers headed to Brazil for the Olympics expect this time around? And how do they best stay safe?
In this blog, we add some perspectives from our friend and security industry colleague Bob Oatman, CPP, who in addition to his advisory role as Chair of the Security Advisory Board with IJet Intelligence, has provided security consulting for a major television network at several summer Olympics.
But first, let’s get a little background on this year’s games.
When, where and how many?
The Summer Olympics will take place from August 5 – 21, 2016.
Unlike the World Cup, the vast majority of Olympic events will be in Rio de Janeiro itself—although some football (soccer) games will be played in other cities around the country.
The focus on Rio doesn’t necessarily make things easier in terms of security, however. The city will have to cope with an influx of at least 500,000 tourists. Furthermore, a record number of athletes and countries will be represented, with over 10,000 athletes and 206 countries set to compete.
Infrastructure and venues…
In 2014, critics and international officials expressed concern over the construction of the venues and how far behind schedule the preparations were. The International Olympic Committee even formed a special task force in order to oversee the preparations.
Whether due to this task force or the negative attention Brazil received prior to the World Cup, it appears that the country is now on track to having all facilities ready for the start of the Games. As of December 2015, the Rio Olympics Committee announced that nearly all the venues were fully built and ready, aside from Rio Olympic Velodrome and the Youth Arena—both of which are now over 75% complete.
As for public transportation, getting around Rio should be doable for most tourists. Public transport and infrastructures built two years ago are functional by now, and should make it relatively easy for attendees to travel through the most visited parts of the city.
…and traffic safety
Travel by road in Brazil is notoriously unsafe.
The WHO estimates that nearly 44,000 persons are killed in traffic accidents annually, or roughly 22 deaths per 100,000 people. This is twice as high as the US rate, and more than five times as high as Germany’s. As such, the risk of death or injury by traffic accident must be considered to be one of the most significant for any visitor to Brazil.
So if you’re protecting a principal at the games, hiring a reliable security driver should be high on your list. According to Bob Oatman, the earlier you start planning for this, the better.
“I’ve seen it happen time and again at these huge international events,” Bob says. “The good drivers – the ones who are trained, vetted and with local knowledge – are always the first to get booked. This means that if you wait too long to make arrangements for the Rio Olympics, you could end up with a second or third-string driver from another city who won’t be able to get you around the inevitable traffic jams in the fastest way possible. Smart companies will want to book early through a specialist partner who knows how to get things done in Rio.”
“You should also try to arrange for a credentialed car,” Bob adds. “When crunch time hits, and the Olympics in a major city are pretty much non-stop crunch time, a credentialed vehicle is a huge advantage. This allows you easier access to controlled zones and the ability to use specially designated express lanes. It can save a lot of time.”
Brazil’s physical security plan for the Olympics
The country has announced tremendous measures to ensure the security of attendees, athletes, and locals. The number of security employees involved is daunting: 47,000 Brazilian security personnel will work between August and September, including 10,000 officers from the National Force who will be dispatched to Rio for the duration of the events.
An additional 38,000 members of the armed services will also be working security. Overall, some 85,000 security staff are expected to be present in Rio. By comparison, the 2012 Summer Olympics in London involved “only” 40,000 people.
The presence of security personnel is of course necessary. But as Bob points out, visitors should not assume that their great numbers, in itself, will ensure security in all cases.
“As anyone who has had the chance to see the Olympics live knows,” Bob explains, “the games have an atmosphere that is all their own. For a few weeks a major city turns into a global microcosm with hundreds of thousands of international visitors. It’s party time on an epic scale and the mood is light and happy – as it should be.”
“This festive ambience, together with tens of thousands of security personnel clearly visible in many places, can lead to a sense of complacency. People might drop their guard and think that anything goes. ‘Hey – let’s go visit a favela and see what all the talk is about’, you might hear. Party zones with lots of drinking can be fun, but they also present risks. As security professionals, we always need to stay vigilant and combat complacency – both in ourselves and in the client organizations whom we serve.”
Crime is still a problem for both locals and tourists
In terms of crime, not much has changed in Rio since the World Cup, whereas things have gotten worse in the rest of the country. 2015 saw a new peak in violence with more than 58,000 violent deaths during the year nationwide. This makes Brazil one of the countries with the highest number of violent deaths in the world. Murders remain the primary cause. Killings by police officers, on and off-duty, come in second.
If it’s any consolation, Rio de Janeiro is safer than many other areas in Brazil. In fact, Rio didn’t even make it to the top 50 of Brazil’s most violent cities. Depending on the neighborhood Rio can still be risky, however, and crime remains a serious problem.
Popular tourist destinations should be approached with care, as tensions in the favelas and street crime continue to put a damper on safety. For example, a string of attacks and robberies along Rio’s popular beaches throughout 2015 —most noticeably Ipanema and Copacabana—forced authorities to deploy over 700 police officers on weekends and set up roadblocks between tourist spots and roads leading to the poorer parts of the city.
If you’re planning to stay in Rio without close protection or security drivers, the usual caveats apply: adopt basic security precautions and stick to well-known and populated areas. Despite their risks, these areas are safer than others for foreign tourists who don’t know their way around town and Brazilian culture.
Still, Bob suggests that foreign visitors exercise good common sense in Brazil. “A little forward thinking can go a long way,” he says, “in Brazil like anywhere else. In order to avoid crimes of opportunity, make yourself a less opportune victim. Leave your fancy watches and jewelry at home. Keep it simple, and don’t bring the big flashy Nikon along unless you really have to. Keep your wallet and other valuables in a front pocket.”
The importance of good intelligence: Know before you go
Bob stresses the importance of staying informed of all risks prior to departure, and ensuring that visitors continue to be updated once they arrive for the games.
“When we worked the Barcelona Olympics in 1992,” he recalls, “the client had hundreds of staff and guests in town. We learned that it was best to do security awareness training for them on day two rather than the day of arrival. On the first day, people are simply too jetlagged and excited by all the buzz to be receptive. It’s also vital to constantly update security recommendations as the games unfold and new developments occur. Things change fast, and what starts as a small demonstration in one part of town can quickly escalate into something bigger in another.”
Terrorism: Always a potential threat
While Brazil hasn’t been a prime target for large-scale terrorist attacks, the high visibility of the Olympics always presents a heightened risk—especially after the recent attacks in Paris, Mali and Tunisia. However, Rio state’s security chief has stated that no immediate changes were made to the country’s security plan after Paris, “because terrorism was always treated as a priority”.
In order to prevent an attack, Brazil is also working directly with several countries as part of its new Integrated Anti-Terrorism Center plan which consists of a specific body of intelligence and security specialists.
There have been concerns regarding Brazil’s borders. With roughly 23,000 kilometers of sea and land borders shared with 10 countries, Brazil has repeatedly struggled to fight against drug and arms smuggling. There are fears that terrorists could easily cross the border, or may have done so already—although there are no reported threats so far.
The Zika virus
The news on the rapid spread of the Zika virus is not good. There are no known cures or vaccinations, and how the games will ultimately be affected remains an open question.
The Brazilian government has dispatched nearly 250,000 military personnel all across the country in order to help the population protect themselves from mosquitoes, the virus’s main transmitters. With only a few months to go before the games begin, some airlines have begun offering refunds to pregnant women travelling to infected countries—Brazil included.
Some point out that mosquitos carrying the virus are likely to be less prevalent during the games, since the Olympics take place during Brazil’s winter season – and because Rio is far from northeastern Brazil, where Zika infections are most prevalent. Others urge women of child-bearing age to simply stay away from any unnecessary risk – including all of Brazil.
If you are pregnant, or travelling with someone who is, it is of course essential to keep a close eye on the Zika situation. This is hard enough for public health experts to do; as we write this, the World Health Organization (WHO), the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Brazilian organizers are all offering different kinds of travel recommendations.
We do not pretend to have any better information than they do.
The WHO’s factsheet on Zika is here.
We hope you stay safe, happy and productive during the Olympics!
While the preparations for this year’s Olympics seem to be unfolding better than for the World Cup, there’s no doubt that one should remain careful while in Rio de Janeiro. Our previous blog article about staying safe in Brazil contains plenty of recommendations that still apply.
And, as usual, if you feel you might need some additional safety while travelling, don’t hesitate to contact us.
And last but not least: A hearty thanks to Bob Oatman for sharing his experience and insights here on AS Solution’s blog!