Rio: An island of relative safety in a sea of vulnerability?

Rio de Janeiro has made strides to improve public safety, leading the way for Brazil's other 26 states. But with upcoming mega-events, coordination between federal and state forces is still needed.

Brazil has 16,000 kilometers of dry borders, a totally vulnerable area, plus 9,000 kilometers of territorial ocean, and a river 4,000 kilometers long,” State Public Safety Secretary José Mariano Beltrame told a panel audience last week at the annual Global Economy Symposium, held this year in Rio de Janeiro by the German Bertelsmann Foundation and the Kiehl Institute for the World Economy.

“It’s very difficult,” he went on. “Arms, drugs, and mass munition aren’t produced in Brazil, much less in Rio… The country must have a very clear national policy to protect its borders… this problem isn’t being dealt with in a visible manner and with results that citizens can evaluate. It ends up in the hands of the states.”

Mr. Beltrame then shifted his sights from the Brazilian federal government, to other countries.

“Our number one enemy is the automatic rifle, but we don’t have Brazilian automatic rifles; this equipment comes from abroad, mostly from the United States. The producer country should keep track of these transactions. Worse than the weapon is the munition, because munition you buy over and over. There are mechanisms for finding these weapons. Countries have the capability to do this,” Beltrame said.

One plus one equals…

It’s impossible to hear this and not imagine a member of some angry splinter group, sect, or ethnic minority popping over to Rio for the Olympics, easily picking up a weapon, getting him or herself to the top of a building and doing a Lee Harvey Oswald at a delegation en route to some competition.

Which would not exactly be a boon for tourism in Rio de Janeiro.

The state and city governments of Rio de Janeiro are politically allied with [the capital city of] Brasília, but Beltrame’s plaint indicates cracks. And these, plus longtime neglect, have led to a situation, RioRealblog has heard, where the country has a spotty national crime database, crime prevention based more on static police presence than patrols, intelligence based on wiretaps and cellphone monitoring, border patrols that use cellphones (antennae-permitting) for long range communications and position mapping, and almost zero vessel monitoring in Guanabara Bay. Fuel is also short, for waterway monitoring in much of the country.

Just last year, Brazil experienced its worst natural disaster ever, with 800 deaths from flooding in the mountains of the state of Rio de Janeiro. Six months later, a state attorney general who volunteered to help there told an OsteRio debate audience of her experience. “There were several secretaries, lots of people, federal, state, and city officials, each with his own set of priorities, everyone defending his territory,” said Denise Muniz de Tarin. “Things got better only when a general showed up. He put a map on the table.”

The map, Muniz de Tarin added, dated from 1975.

Equipment: How to use it? Who uses it? In conjunction with whom? Communicating how?

In August, Beltrame said he was “all ears” to hear how much the state of Rio could expect budget-wise from the federal government for public safety during the Roman Catholic World Youth Day and papal visit in 2013, the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Olympics.

At the time, O Globo newspaper reported on this during a meeting in Brasília to discuss mega-event security and policy.

The paper said that according to the justice ministry’s special secretariat for large events, the 2012-14 national budget for equipment and training is equivalent to $585 million. Special Secretary Valdinho Caetano was quoted as saying that the federal government would buy equipment for state public safety providers. One assumes the lion’s share will go to Rio, but it’s not clear just how it will be spent.

“We want a new more integrated way of providing public safety, with interfaces between federal agencies such as [the intelligence agency] Abin and state agencies, with an exchange of information,” he told O Globo. “Those who come to Rio for the events will find tranquility, as we saw in London. And Rio’s citizenry can be sure that public safety is here to stay, that there’ll be a legacy.”

Since that August meeting of state public safety secretaries and federal officials, the only news (with a couple of exceptions) is that in early September the federal government increased Rio state’s borrowing capacity by US$ 3.5 billion equivalent, partly to pay for public safety equipment. No further public mention has been made of interfaces – or joint agency training, planning, or coordination.

“The negotiation with the [federal government] was important, because now we have guarantees that the military police will be modernized, from vehicles to uniforms and the revision of the police academy curriculum,” a police spokesperson told RioRealblog. Mega-event security per se, the spokesperson noted, is constitutionally Brasília’s responsibility, with local public safety forces taking on the rest of the city.

Whatever the money is spent on, there’s clearly much to be done within and across agencies. Brazil’s Federal Police, responsible under Justice Ministry jurisdiction for the country’s borders, struck for over two months this year for pay raises and other demands; O Globo called it the largest strike in the agency’s union history. Rio’s military police and firemen struck earlier this year.

Federal Police say they’re overworked and that a new institution ought to be created to relieve them of immigration duties, which have mushroomed in the last few years above all because of the petroleum industry’s need for foreign staff – mostly in Rio.

Rio de Janeiro has made enormous strides to improve public safety, leading the way for the country’s other 26 states. This is partly why the city is now viewed as a suitable location for mega-events.

Proud of their warm friendships, both personal and diplomatic, Brazilians are loathe to imagine the kind of attack that took place during the 1972 Olympics, when Palestinians killed Israelis on German soil. And people here rarely worry about shoe bombs. This is obvious when you zip fully shod through security in any airport, as inspectors chat, smile, and wish you a wonderful journey.

Worry is low on the cultural totem pole. Brazilians dallied about fifteen years before adopting seat belts, ultimately strapped in by high fines. Backseat use is still iffy.

But about national security, Mr. Beltrame is one worried man. Which can only be a good thing for Rio de Janeiro.

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