Brazil Riots Threaten World Cup as Nation Prepares for Games

Rio Riots Threaten World Cup Safety as Brazil Prepares for Match
Protesters demonstrate in Rio de Janeiro on October 21, 2013. Protests against political corruption, failing health and education systems as well as excessive public spending on sports erupted in June and show little sign of abating. Photographer: Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty Images

The red carpet had been rolled out, the photographers were primed. Then came the tear gas.

The movie premiere in downtown Rio de Janeiro this month turned into another scene of confrontation between police and protesters in the Brazilian city that will host next year’s soccer World Cup final. This time, it was dozens of striking teachers who sought sanctuary in a movie theater.

“It was just like a war,” Cavi Borges, director of the documentary “City of God: 10 Years Later,” said of his canceled screening. “Every day there’s something like that.”

The story is familiar in a country where nationwide protests against political corruption, failing health and education systems as well as excessive public spending on sports erupted in June and show little sign of abating.

They are putting the spotlight on security before the arrival of the world’s biggest sporting events, the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

The World Cup will inject 112.8 billion reais ($52 billion) into the Brazilian economy by 2014, according to FIFA, citing a report by accountant Ernst & Young. Brazil is spending about 30 billion reais on projects related to the tournament. A similar amount in private and public spending is going toward the Rio Olympics that will be held two years later.

Percussion Grenades

The haze of tear gas and the sound of percussion grenades have remained commonplace as protesters are joined by masked anarchists known as the Black Bloc.

Authorities in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, said Oct. 16 they were tracking a criminal gang threatening to target the World Cup. The U.S. Consulate in Rio alerted American citizens on Oct. 11 to the possibility of continued protests, instructing them to avoid areas where large gatherings may occur. Less than a week later, some of the agency’s windows were smashed after being pelted with stones during another night of protests.

“Police don’t know who is being good and who is being bad and start going willy-nilly with deployment of gas, flash-bang devices, pepper weapons, and then everyone becomes a victim,” said Eduardo Jany, a security consultant who has worked with forces across Brazil. “There needs to be a pretty dramatic change in terms of doctrine, equipping and preparing.”

While no nation can match the five World Cups won by Brazil’s team, the 3.3 million-square mile (8.5 million-square kilometer) country has hosted the event only once before, in

1950. FIFA, which organizes the tournament, has trademarked the slogan for this one as “All in One Rhythm.”

Less Samba

Yet the pulse of the country has become less about dance and more about protest since June when Brazil hosted the Confederations Cup, a warm-up competition for the World Cup to test stadiums, transport and security.

On the night of Oct. 15 when teams such as current champion Spain, England and Chile won games they needed to qualify for the 32-team tournament next summer, bare-chested youths threw rocks and fireworks at police officers in downtown Rio following largely peaceful protests by about 10,000 teachers and their supporters. Police in riot gear responded with rounds of tear gas that hung over the center of the city.

During the protest, a youth dressed in black with his face covered climbed a wall of Rio’s municipal chamber, with hundreds of onlookers cheering as he sprayed-painted “Get Out FIFA” in Portuguese.

Slowing Economy

Economists predict that the country will grow at a slower pace than the Latin American average of 2.6 percent this year and 3.2 percent next, even as inflation of about 6 percent pushes up the housing and other costs for residents.

Every World Cup has its unique issue. In Germany, the focus in 2006 was on the controlling rival European fans. Four years later, host South Africa faced questions about whether its security forces were up to the job of protecting such a high-profile event from crime.

Brazil’s tourism agency Embratur today unveiled a $10 million advertising campaign to entice visitors to the country for the tournament. The organization’s head, Flavio Dino, says the protests won’t put tourists off, and he’s more concerned about price increases for hotels and aviation.

“The concerns are real,” Dino said. “We are currently negotiating with hotels, FIFA and the airlines to fix fair prices for fares.”

Rio’s Public Safety Secretariat, which has control of security in the state, is improving training for officers and adding new equipment, said Roberto Alzir, deputy secretary for major events in the organization.

Increasing Spending

The state’s investment in security rose to 4.8 billion reais this year from 2 billion reais in 2008, according to the secretariat. That compares with the 1.3 billion rand ($133 million) that South Africa said it had budgeted ahead of the 2010 World Cup as it assigned about 44,000 officers.

Fifty-five military police officers have been injured since protests began, and use of rubber bullets was suspended on Sept. 3, the Brazilian force’s press department said in an e-mail.

Yesterday, Interpol, the international police body, said it will work with the Olympic organizers to improve safety for the 2016 Games in Rio, including tracking stolen and lost travel documents, targeting illegal betting and hunting for internationally wanted suspects. The agreement calls for the global security group to assist the International Olympic Committee in the hunt for doping and corruption.

Rio’s violent deaths dropped 38.2 percent between 2006 and 2011, while street robberies fell to their lowest level since 2006, according to the city.

“There’s never been such satisfactory conditions of professionalism, command and respect in recent history,” Alzir said in an interview. The World Cup brings “more visibility, more reporters, and more foreign visitors. It’s a better environment for certain groups to propagate their causes, which will demand a greater effort of planning.”

Positive Movement

Jany, director of law enforcement advisory services for American security firm Mutualink Inc., said that Rio is moving to align its police tactics with best practices, though it won’t happen in time for the World Cup.

About $3.5 billion in public spending is going toward stadiums built to exact specifications demanded by FIFA,

the Switzerland-based body that governs soccer.

That, and a further $10 billion being spent on infrastructure work related to the event has stoked tensions in a country where schools ranked below Mexico, Russia and Mongolia in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Human Capital Index. The country relaxed immigration rules to allow more doctors in -- as many as 4,000 from Communist Cuba -- to combat what the government says is a shortage of 168,000 physicians. Inflation has remained above 5 percent in all but two months over the past three years, crimping purchasing power.

Rare Demonstrations

Until June, large-scale public demonstrations had been rare in South America’s most-populous country. As protests raged, a nationwide poll by Datafolha found 26 percent of people opposed Brazil hosting the World Cup, up from 10 percent in a 2008 survey.

At the opening game of the Confederations Cup, fans jeered FIFA leader Sepp Blatter and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. There was unrest in all six cities that hosted tournament games, and tear gas wafted into Rio’s Maracana stadium during Brazil’s victory over Spain in the final. At least six deaths were connected to June’s protests.

“Thousands were in the streets and you saw posters saying teachers are worth more than Neymar,” said Wiria Alcantara, a member of the board of the teachers’ union, referring to the Brazil player who in May joined Barcelona for $75 million. “Civil society was clamoring for quality education.”

Later Screening

“City of God: 10 Years Later,” a documentary about the fate of the actors who starred in director Fernando Meirelles’s hit movie about organized crime set in one of Rio’s toughest slums, finally screened on Oct. 12 after the tear gas prompted its postponement. Director Borges invited teachers onto the stage to unfurl their banners.

Signs are that protesters will continue to target sports events. Outside Rio’s legislature, one banner reads: “We’re not going to have a World Cup or Olympics.”

About 50 people on Oct. 7 invaded the pitch as Jerome Valcke, the top FIFA official responsible for the World Cup, toured a stadium in Cuiaba, western Brazil. Valcke watched the banner paraded around the arena that read: “FIFA, Go Home.”

“What do you want us to do? What do you want me to say about it? It is happening,” Valcke said, raising his arms in frustration at a press conference. “Will it happen at the World Cup? I hope not, but potentially it could.”

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