Rio bracing for terrorist threats

- Alan Gomez @alangomez USA TODAY Contributi­ng: Sam Cowie

Terrorism is a threat largely unknown in this South American country. But it is foremost on the minds of Brazil’s security forces as they prepare to host a half-million visitors to one of the world’s highest-profile events: the Summer Olympics.

The Islamic State has declared that Rio will be a target. And this week’s suicide bombing attack in Turkey and the Orlando massacre earlier in June worry security officials about whether Brazil will be ready to respond.

“I don’t know how you stop it. It’s a perfect storm,” said Bobby Chacon, a retired FBI agent living in Rio who was the bureau’s assistant security coordinato­r at the 2004 Games in Athens.

Brazil has rarely had to face terrorist threats, unlike the host countries of the previous two Games — Russia in 2014 and England in 2012. Brazil has largely stayed out of internatio­nal conflicts and brags that it has no foreign enemies.

The spotlight of the Games changes all that. A tweet sent by a member of the Islamic State in November declared, “Brazil, you are our next target,” and Counterter­rorism Director Luiz Alberto Sallaberry confirmed it was genuine. That made Brazilian officials concede they had a steep learning curve.

“We don’t have experience with this,” George Freitas said.

Freitas is superinten­dent of Rio’s Integrated Center of Command and Control, where rows of workers sit in front of a massive wall of streaming video from cameras spread around the sprawling city. The center is usually for law enforcemen­t and emergency responders, but during the Olympics it will add military commanders, federal justice officials and others to coordinate the response to terrorist threats.

Freitas, who spent 34 years with Brazil’s military police, said Brazilian forces are experience­d battling drug cartels and gangs that control the country’s dangerous, ungoverned shanty towns, known as favelas.

“I’ve been in combat. I’ve seen it. I understand it,” Freitas said in a conference room overlookin­g the command center. “But Brazil has never lived with the experience of terrorism. That’s why we’ve been working with (foreign government­s) to make sure we have the maximum exchange of informatio­n possible.”

That work has come in many forms for Brazil’s security forces, who have traveled around the world in recent years to attend Olympics, golf tournament­s in Azerbaijan, the Super Bowl and other sporting events. French metro police have trained them on monitoring transporta­tion systems. Boston police have coached them on tracking threats in public spaces.

James Story, U.S. consul general in Rio, said American officials conducted more than 100 training sessions for 3,800 Brazilian security forces. Those sessions focused on cybersecur­ity, airport screening, drones, behavioral recognitio­n and other specialtie­s.

Story said the USA will act as a “junior partner” on security throughout the Games, which run Aug. 5 to Aug. 21, and the Brazilians have been more than willing to admit their shortcomin­gs and learn what they can from other government­s.

“Recent events have focused their attention on providing as much security as possible to ensure that these Games are safe,” Story said. “They recognize the responsibi­lity that they have to the world community.” Still, concerns remain. Richard Ford, a retired FBI agent who runs a private security firm in Sao Paulo, said Brazil’s law-enforcemen­t structure is very different from the USA’s. Judicial officials known as delegados authorize criminal investigat­ions, and cities have an overlappin­g system of federal and local police operating separately.

José Mariano Beltrame, Rio de Janeiro’s state security secretary, said officials also will bring in military units to help patrol the Games.

“I see this as normal for any country that hosts an event of this complexity,” he said recently.

Ford said Brazil’s security forces have struggled with communicat­ion between the myriad forces, a problem that will be more complex with added forces around the Games.

“The system is still back in the 14th, 15th century,” he said. “It lends itself to incredible corruption because it’s so bureaucrat­ic.”

Knowing exactly who’s entering Brazil for the Games is another concern.

To make it easier for athletes, spectators and corporate sponsors to attend the Games, Brazil eliminated needing a visa for visitors from the USA, Canada, Australia and Japan. Visitors from other countries, including those in the European Union and Russia, already could travel to Brazil without a visa.

“That means there aren’t any safeguards for knowing who’s going to be there,” Ford said.

Brazil does have history on its side. The country is world-renowned for throwing a party, such as its annual week-long Carnival that draws tourists from around the world. The country also hosted the 2014 World Cup without major incidents.

 ?? ALAN GOMEZ, USA TODAY ?? Law-enforcemen­t officials monitor video feeds from around the city at Rio’s Integrated Center of Command and Control.
ALAN GOMEZ, USA TODAY Law-enforcemen­t officials monitor video feeds from around the city at Rio’s Integrated Center of Command and Control.

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