Security concerns could cast a shadow on 2014 World Cup in Brazil

06/27/2013 6:54 PM

06/27/2013 9:42 PM

For the FIFA Confederations Cup, Brazil put 54,000 security officers on the streets, worked out of coordinated command centers in all host cities for the soccer tournament, and invested in technology, such as bomb-defusing robots.

More than 1,100 military personnel with expertise in fighting terrorism and combating chemical and nuclear agents were deployed.

But one contingency that officials apparently didn’t plan for was 1 million Brazilians taking to the streets for massive protests during the two weeks Brazil has played host to the tournament.

The protests add a whole new dimension to security threats, said Frank Holder, chairman for Latin America of FTI Consulting, a global advisory firm. “No one I’ve talked to thought of this as a potential scenario from a security point of view,’’ he said.

The soccer tournament ends Sunday, but the demonstrations — they began as a protest against an increase in bus fares and then morphed into generalized discontent about the money being spent on building and renovating soccer stadiums in the face of corruption, poor healthcare and a mediocre public education system — are expected to continue. Thousands fought with police Thursday outside the stadium where a Confederations Cup semi-final match was taking place.

The tournament was supposed to be Brazil’s dress rehearsal for the 2014 World Cup, which will be held next June 12-July 13, and an opportunity to see if its security systems, airports, stadiums and transit systems performed up to snuff. Fears about six new stadiums not being quite ready for prime time didn’t materialize and FIFA officials said they were satisfied with the arenas.

But now Brazil must go back to the drawing board and formulate new security plans that factor in massive, possibly violent, public protests. So far, the protests have been mostly peaceful, but about a half-dozen people have died, police have unleashed rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray on crowds, some stores have been looted and windows at government ministries have been shattered.

“The Confederations Cup is a good sample of what could happen during the World Cup,’’ Holder said.

Meeting the security demands of the World Cup, however, will be far more difficult because it will be played in 12 cities.

If massive protests crop up during the World Cup, “will there be enough trained people to cover so many venues when there are also other types of security threats to address?” asked Holder.

Even before the protests, FTI had given Brazil a 4 on a five-point Latin American Public Security Index with 5 being the most dangerous. The 4 put Brazil on par with Bolivia, Colombia and El Salvador and reflected higher rates of violent crime — especially in the Northeast, a rise in homicides in Sao Paulo as police and local gangs clashed and an increase in loss or theft of merchandise, Holder said.

President Dilma Rousseff has promised to address the concerns of protestors and has already met with some of them. But Holder said, “Dilma will have to do something significant to back up her words.”

At this point, getting from protest mode to concrete solutions will be “very hard,’’ said Armando Castelar Pinheiro, an economist with the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. “People are protesting mostly because they are fed up rather than because they see a clear way out.”

Earlier this week, FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke tried to put a positive spin on the protest-marred Confederations Cup and said the World Cup would go on as planned in Brazil.

“There is no Plan B and, by the way, I have never received any official offer from any other countries around the world to stage the World Cup in 2014,” he said. The Confederations Cup, said Valcke, has created thousands of jobs in Brazil and “we are doing plenty of good things.’’

And he emphasized, “There is security.’’

Brazil did seem to have its bases covered before the Confederations Cup. It spent nearly $900 million buying helicopters with high-tech vigilance equipment, installing state-of-the-art command centers and purchasing other high-tech gadgets. It invested in training and signed a $7.2 million contract with iRobot Corp., a Bedford, Mass. company for 30 robots capable of defusing bombs.

“The idea is to put the robot in harm’s way rather than a person,’’ said Tim Trainer, a vice president at iRobot.

Similar robots were used to check the structural integrity of buildings after the 9-11 attacks, investigate caves in Afghanistan for weapons caches, and to do video surveillance and radiation mapping after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, he said.

The 50- to 60-pound PackBot robots sent to Brazil are “multi-mission’’ machines with sensors to detect hazmet, chemical, biological, bomb and radiation threats. They can also investigate, lift and move suspicious packages — a mission they undertook during the Confederations Cup.

But one thing the PackBot can’t control or inspect is the human factor. “The protests aren’t really applicable to what we provide,’’ Trainer said. “We cover what we believe is a piece of the security picture.’’

While holding mega-events potentially may help Brazil as it tries to position itself as a “world-class country,’’ they also come with risks, said Barbara Kotschwar, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“They put more of a magnifying glass on a country,’’ said Holder. “In this case, the protests got far more coverage than the Confederations Cup.”

Still, Castelar said he doesn’t think that the protests will hurt Brazil’s image as it prepares for the World Cup and the Olympic Games.

“Actually, I think the protests present a more positive view of Brazil in a sense that people now realize that Brazilians aren’t so hypnotized by soccer that they don’t pay attention to anything else,’’ he said. “I don’t think this is a negative for Brazil. It’s not a protest against the World Cup; it’s a protest to convince the government to spend money wisely and fight corruption.’’

But Holder isn’t so sure that continued massive protests won’t hurt Brazil’s image. They could lead to costly business disruptions if they become more violent and continue to snarl traffic, he said.

“Already, I have feedback from clients who were stuck in traffic going to the airport during the protests. They got out of their cabs and were dragging their luggage on foot through not the best neighborhoods and some of them still ended up missing their flights,’’ he said.

During a news briefing earlier this week, Brazilian Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo said that despite the protests, “Brazil will be able to hold the World Cup up to the expectations of our country and the world.’’

And he went even further, predicting that Brazil’s team would reach the Confederations Cup final on Sunday. Brazil’s 2-1 victory over Uruguay on Wednesday assured it a spot in the finals and gave the sports minister at least something to cheer about.

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