Latin AmericaRise to Peace blog

World Cup and Olympics and Terrorism in Brazil

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, terrorist attacks occurred in countries that were hosting global events, including incidents at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and at the Atlanta games in 1996. Since then, the risk of violence and terrorist attacks have become a growing concern for nations hosting these high profile events as well as the international community attending the events. However, on the occasion of Brazil hosting both the 2014 Soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the context and the problems experienced by Brazil and most Latin American countries became evident.

During the Cold War, the vast majority of these countries were under brutal military dictatorships that oppressed the people and labeled every opposition group as terrorists, whether they were peaceful or not. Brazil was among the countries where opposition groups were labeled as terrorists for the simple act of opposing to the government; in many cases protesters were interrogated and tortured by military officers. As a result, following the democratization in 1985 and its consolidation four years afterward, the term terrorist was removed from the vocabulary of Brazilian leaders due to its strong connotation and alignment with the military dictatorship.

As Brazil prepared to host the two most popular events in the world, the World Cup and the Olympics, the international pressure for security was so strong that the country had to pass more extensive anti-terrorism legislation. President Dilma Rousseff, fought in a guerilla during the 1970s and 1980s, and her successor, Michel Temer, is of Arab origin, both common among Brazilians. This resulted in the Brazilian law being much broader and ambiguous than ones in other Western countries, leaving many organizers and security professionals related to the events unhappy.

The consensus at the time was that Brazil was not prepared for an attack the scale of Munich in 1972. As an example, Brazil focused its preparation on so-called lone wolves, which act alone rather than having a group or cell supporting and coordinating the attack. At the time of organizing these events, the Islamic State was publishing videos and statements in Portuguese, creating fears that it could be behind an attack during these events, while the eyes of the world would be fixed on Rio de Janeiro.

Another issue of concern as noted by the New York Times was that the Brazilian soldiers in charge of protecting the various event sites were not prepared to deal with various terrorist scenarios. Not only was the training to counter terrorist attacks or violent insurgency insufficient, but the soldiers and police officers were poorly paid and inadequately equipped, as the state lacked the financial support for basic supplies and equipment, such as gasoline for police cars.

Luckily, there were no terrorist attacks during the World Cup or during the 2016 Olympics. However, the problems remain, and the event highlighted the inability of the Brazilian government to properly respond to terrorist activity.  In fact the same factors limiting efficacy for terror response actions such as insufficient training, lack of equipment, and poor pay, are also partly responsible for the high incidence of violence in Latin America. Thus, the region is unprepared to deal with terrorism and violent extremism, as well as to the day-to-day violence, with few resources invested in police which can counter violence, and even less devoted to tackling the issues that create and enable the rise of violence and drug trafficking. The World Cup and the Olympics exposed the lack of preparation and weakness of Brazil in terms of public safety, but until it becomes a priority for the state, nothing will change and Brazil will not be able to transcend its drug trafficking or homicide epidemics, let alone be prepared for a terrorist event.

Brazilian Army Forces soldiers patrol on Copacabana beach ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 18, 2016. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

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