Rio 2016: Brazilian Security in the Spotlight

by Michael Martelle. Michael is a masters student studying Security Policy at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.

Members of the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) stand guard while children play on top of the Macaco favela in northern Rio de Janeiro (Photo: Sebastiano Tomada / Al Jazeera).

Members of the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) stand guard while children play on top of the Macaco favela in northern Rio de Janeiro (Photo: Sebastiano Tomada / Al Jazeera).

A week after the truck attack in Nice, France, and two weeks before opening ceremonies in Rio De Janeiro, Brazilian Federal Police announced their success in wrapping up a ring of Daesh sympathizers calling themselves “Defenders of Shariah”, who were “preparing acts of terrorism” during the 2016 Summer Olympics. What initially sounded like an indication of serious organizing activity around the Olympic Games was described by Moraes as amateurish, ill-prepared and unorganized (Rogerio Jelmayer and Reed Johnson, “Brazil Arrests 10 Suspected of Plotting Attacks Timed for Olympics“, Wall Street Journal, 21.07.2016).

The three widely agreed upon elements that go into committing a crime are means, motive, and opportunity. Skipping “means” for now, motive is present, but lightly so. The individuals arrested were, according to Brazilian Federal Police, all born in Brazil, had never traveled to the Middle East, and hadn’t even met each other (see also this criticism about the media and politicians, who ascribe attacks to Daesh — often without specific evidence for its actual involvement).

Brazil's Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes attends a press conference on arrests made in at least two states before the start of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, in Brasilia July 21, 2016 (Photo: Adriano Machado / Reuters).

Brazil’s Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes attends a press conference on arrests made in at least two states before the start of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, in Brasilia July 21, 2016 (Photo: Adriano Machado / Reuters).

Brazil’s Muslim population is incredibly small, not large enough to mention in the CIA World Factbook. According to the US Governmental International Religious Freedom Report, the assessments of the number of Muslims vary enormously: “According to the 2010 census, there are approximately 35,200 Muslims, while the Federation of Muslim Associations of Brazil states the number at approximately 1.5 million. Other observers estimate the number of Muslims to be between 400,000 and 500,000.” The population is considered to be reasonably well-integrated, and there has been a recent influx of converts from the Brazilian populace. In all, hardly a situation where one would expect Daesh sympathizers to be found. According to police, the 10 met, communicated, and learned via websites associated with Radical Islam, so there is a very strong possibility that these individuals felt otherwise disgruntled and saw in Radical Islam an outlet for their feelings.

The question of “means” is where things get weird. The group had no bomb-making materials, had inquired online about buying a single AK-47 rifle from a seller in Paraguay, and had only recently talked about maybe getting some martial arts training. According to Brazilian Police, it was this additional step to “action” and “planning” from what was previously only communication online — for which they were already being monitored — that led to the arrests. That being said, this group was clearly nowhere close to reaching the ability to launch what the world would consider a terror attack, and were arguably a good distance from basic competency in the field. If, as Donn Piatt once suggested, greatness can be measured by one’s enemies, this ring of would-be terrorists was hardly a trophy for Brazil’s security apparatus. So why was this broadcast so widely? The principle security fear surrounding the Rio 2016 Olympic Games had been street crime, or crimes of opportunity. It is precisely these crimes of opportunity that this group of 10 were capable of carrying out.

We expect that if there is a major drop in inequality, homicide rates go down. In 2000, Brazil’s homicide rate was 32.2 per 100,000 residents, and in 2012 it was just over 32.4. — Christopher Mikton, technical officer on the WHO Prevention of Violence Team cited in Vincent Bevins, “In Brazil, homicide rate still high despite increased prosperity“, Los Angeles Times, 22.05.2015.

Despite an improvement in all other economic and social indicators prosperity for the region, Brazil’s crime rates remain exceptionally high. From 2000 until 2012 the homicide rate remained essentially the same while globally the homicide rate dropped 16%. An important detail to this statistic, however, is the fact that homicide rates in wealthier areas of the country have actually dropped significantly due to aggressive, some would say heavy-handed, security policies. One can assume, given the lack of change in the national rate, that the homicide rate in the more impoverished areas has increased. If true, the cause is likely demographic: The primary perpetrators of crime, young adult males, have increased in share of the population.

Brazil’s security forces have been trying to address these fears through “pacification” of the Favelas which began before the 2014 FIFA World Cup and a wide-spread and publicized redeployment of troops and security personnel to the city. The operations in the Favelas have been met with marginal success at best and dubious reactions internationally. Couple these question marks with the Zika Virus, which so far nobody has any answers for, and it can be seen that Brazilian officials may have been looking for a “win”. Ironically, while this case did demonstrate Brazil’s ability to monitor, track, and arrest a group of suspects simultaneously, it also demonstrated the class of criminal that Brazil’s security community considers dangerous enough to warrant an operation of this magnitude. Brazil does not fear Daesh; Brazil fears the street criminal.

Military soldiers patrol external areas and the lobbies of Galeao international airport ahead of Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo: Dado Galdieri / Bloomberg Photo).

Military soldiers patrol external areas and the lobbies of Galeao international airport ahead of Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo: Dado Galdieri / Bloomberg Photo).

Shortly after the opening ceremonies, which featured an ironic tribute to “favela culture”, a Federal Police squad car took a wrong turn and wound up in a favela near the airport. It is unknown whose “territory” this was but Brazil’s most powerful gang, Red Command, is reported to hold ground near the same airport. The car was targeted by machine gun fire and one officer was killed. Brazilian officials later claimed the identity of the killer was known, though he had not been brought into custody (“Olympic officer who was shot in head after wrong turn into slum dies“, Chicago Tribune, 11.08.2016).

[…] [W]hen Brazil wakes up from the Olympic reverie, it will have to face the same bitter political struggles as before, coupled with the deepest recession in decades. — Alex Cuadros, “Why Brazilians Are So Obsessed with the Ryan Lochte Story“, The New Yorker, 18.08.2016.

At around the same time a prison and the town around it erupted into violence in response to a crackdown on cell reception within the prison and subsequent measures by authorities to disrupt communications to, from, and between gang members in prison. The government was forced to send a sizable force, 1,000 army soldiers and 200 marines, to quell the unrest (Jonathan Watts, “Brazil deploys over 1,000 troops in response to spate of gang-related attacks“, The Guardian, 03.08.3016).

Perhaps the most visible security event during this year’s Olympics was the saga of Ryan Lochte and his team-mates. Brazil’s reaction to this event and specifically to Lochte’s story seemed to suggest a sensitivity to stereotypes of dangerous street crime of opportunity.

If the reaction to Ryan Lochte showed what stereotypes Brazilians are embarrassed by, the arrest of 10 terrorists, albeit amateur, may have been an attempt to display strength and security while in the public spotlight. The situation in the favelas and the prison riot turned insurrection suggest Brazil’s security apparatus still has a ways to go in facing crime-based security challenges before it can credibly stand shoulder to shoulder with counterparts in other regional powers.

This entry was posted in Brazil, English, Michael Martelle, Organised Crime, Security Policy, South America, Terrorism.

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