- - Sunday, May 25, 2014

SAO PAULO, Brazil — With the opening of an unfinished stadium less than a month away, a flurry of street protests, police strikes and rioting across Brazil have raised concerns about the country’s ability to provide adequate security for visitors during the World Cup tournament.

“Safety and security are wild cards,” said David Wiencek, managing director of the U.S.-based International Security Group Inc., a risk consultancy that produces bulletins about World Cup preparations.

Protests top the list of security threats since Brazilian Spring demonstrations last year that overshadowed the FIFA Confederations Cup, a warm-up for the World Cup championship. Other threats include street crime, organized crime gangs, terrorism, poor communications infrastructure, and transportation gridlock.

Brazil will mobilize an unprecedented number of police officers and military troops to patrol sensitive areas. Some 170,000 security personnel will be on duty during the four-week soccer tournament, where 32 international teams will compete in 12 cities in this South American nation.

“When you see the military hardware in the street, it is pretty impressive,” Mr. Wiencek said.

Elizabeth Leeds, co-founder and honorary president of the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety, expressed concern that the security force’s new “ninja uniforms” might be inappropriately intimidating.

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To bolster security, Brazilian forces have received extra training, and the government plans to deploy new equipment, such as Israeli-manufactured aerial drones. For Brazilians who envision a Russian-style clampdown like that during the Sochi Winter Olympics, many wonder whether Brazilian authorities can pull it off.

“The Brazilian law enforcement and security capabilities are completely untested,” Mr. Wiencek said. “Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro might have good capabilities, but in other places, it is a patchwork.”

Brazil’s tourism capital, Rio de Janeiro, will receive particular attention, especially as it hosts the World Cup final July 13. The International Olympic Committee, which selected Rio for the 2016 Summer Games, will be watching closely.

A few weeks ago, IOC Vice President John Coates called Rio’s preparations for the Olympic Games “the worst that I’ve experienced” and compared them unfavorably with those of 2004 in Athens. Still, the IOC rejects speculation that Rio could be stripped of the 2016 Games.

In the favelas

The World Cup offers a showcase for Rio’s high-profile Pacifying Police Unit. The program, which began in 2008, created permanent police stations in the city’s notorious shantytowns, known as favelas, to combat violence and reduce the influence of drug gangs.

“For 30 years, we had the war on drugs model. The police would enter a favela, shoot a few people and leave to return six months later,” said Ignacio Cano, a former adviser for the Rio police and a sociologist at Rio de Janeiro State University. “Now they stay.”

Six years into the program, Rio has 37 police units staffed by 2,000 officers, mostly new recruits. Mr. Cano criticizes some aspects of the program, including an all-too-frequent “old-style” confrontational approach by police, but his studies have concluded that the police units have reduced violence and encouraged citizens to report nonlethal crimes such as theft and rape.

Most units are in favelas dotting the otherwise middle-class neighborhoods of southern Rio, notably in Copacabana and Ipanema, where most foreign visitors frequent.

“The idea of the UPPs is to transform Rio into an international tourism and business center,” Mr. Cano said.

Security specialists say favelas are havens for drug gangs and petty crime. Some suspect that Rio gangs fueled street protests last year, but nobody can say, Ms. Leeds said.

A few months ago, wiretaps suggested that Sao Paulo’s branch of First Command of the Capital — the country’s largest crime organization, with more than 13,000 members — might try to disrupt the World Cup. But opinions about the likelihood of the threat are divided.

“Those are credible threats. We have seen what they have been able to do in the past, wreaking havoc in Sao Paulo,” said Frank Holder, chairman of the Latin American region of the U.S.-based FTI Consulting.

‘Anybody could do anything’

Graham Denyer Willis, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Center for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, downplayed the threat, saying the crime syndicate would “have little to gain” by disrupting the tournament.

Mr. Cano predicts that the violent side of organized crime will be muted. With thousands of revelers descending on the country, he said, “they see this as an opportunity to sell drugs. They do not want to upset that.”

Petty crime is a different beast.

“When it comes to street crime, you need to make the point that Brazil is not like the U.S. or Europe,” Mr. Wiencek said. “Europeans are more adventurous, and they may put themselves in harm’s way because they assume that Brazil is all about samba and having fun.”

Officials have downplayed terrorism as a threat during the World Cup.

“Brazil does not take the terrorism angle seriously,” Mr. Holder said. “They have not suffered attacks on their soil in recent history, and Brazil has pretty good relations with everyone.

“It is not like having the World Cup in Israel, Yemen or the United States,” he said. “But they do need to take seriously anything at a venue with 1 billion spectators. Anybody could do anything.”

One of the best indictors of violence might be the performance of the Brazilian team.

“If the team goes to the final, people might just watch the matches,” Mr. Cano said.

Mr. Wiencek agreed. “If the Brazilian team does well, it is going to galvanize people in a good way. If it does not do well, the World Cup will come to symbolize a lot of inequality.”

Mr. Holder said, “Hopefully they win and everybody goes away happy.”

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