As Attention Turns To World Cup, Brazil Ramps Up Security To Prepare For More Protests


Brazilian protesters in the streets of Sao Paulo. (Credit: Globo News)

Six months after more than a million Brazilian protesters flooded the streets of at least a dozen cities, Brazilian authorities are again preparing to deal with demonstrations centered around the World Cup, which opens in Sao Paulo just seven months from now. The original protests caught Brazil off guard, as demonstrations against bus fare hikes escalated into full-blown actions against government corruption and excessive spending on the country’s efforts to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics two years later.

Nothing signified the corruption and lack of concern for Brazil’s income inequality more than those two mega events, especially as Brazil erected new stadiums across the country even as its schools, hospitals, and infrastructure continued to crumble and remained largely understaffed. The demonstrations have continued, if at smaller levels, since the tune-up Confederations Cup ended in June, and with attention turning back to Brazil thanks ahead of this week’s tournament draw, the country is receiving aid from French law enforcement authorities who are training officials ahead of the World Cup it has waited a half-century to host.

According to the Associated Press, Brazilian protest groups have promised demonstrations around the World Cup’s opening match in Sao Paulo and in other cities, including Natal, Ciubaba, and Salvador, as the tournament progresses. Whether those protests will materialize is hard to predict. There’s a good chance that, even as inequality and spending issues remain, Brazilians will largely be swept up in the hysteria and celebratory mood that surrounds the World Cup, especially if the Brazilian national team, an expected favorite entering the tournament, plays well. And because FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, is hyper-sensitive to protecting its brand and events, the large zones it creates around stadiums to keep non-sponsors and fans away will inhibit efforts to organize large protests around stadiums and in the streets like those that took place last summer.

Prominent drug cartels and gangs have promised to create a “World Cup of Terror” around the games, saying they will disrupt events with bombings and other attacks, though police say they are confident such attacks won’t occur. Amid those threats and Brazil’s high crime rates, the Western media has focused primarily on how security concerns would affect fans and foreign travelers, and given those questions, the increased security would seem a positive step. At a pre-World Cup press conference Tuesday, FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke promised that Brazil’s security was ready to deal with any protests or demonstrations. FIFA, Valcke said, was impressed with the way the protests were handled during the Confederations Cup and had confidence that demonstrations would not mar the World Cup.

But focusing only on that aspect of it ignores how increased security could affect Brazilians both during and after the World Cup. Along with excessive spending and inequality, police brutality and corruption were among the complaints in last summer’s protests. According to government numbers, Brazilian police killed one in 229 suspects they arrested last year, one of the highest figures in the world (U.S. police kill one in every 31,575). Protests erupted in June against police over the death of a 17-year-old Sao Paulo boy killed in an earlier demonstration, then again in August over the case of Amarildo de Souza, a Brazilian man whose disappearance and subsequent death was blamed on police officers (25 were charged with his murder in October). Typical police responses to protests — tear gassing, pepper spraying, and excessive force — were also rampant throughout the demonstrations, drawing even more opposition from the protesters.

World Cup security could only intensify those efforts. Cracking down on drug gangs in Brazilian favelas is one thing, but as The Nation‘s Dave Zirin has written, “security” ahead of mega-events like South Africa’s 2010 World Cup and Olympics in Vancouver and London has often “meant raiding the homes and offices of ‘people of interest’,” “spying on activist groups planning legal protests,” and the “displacement of many of the homeless and those in nearby low-income housing to create a security perimeter.” When security guards went on strike over unpaid wages during South Africa’s World Cup, they were met with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets from police officers. And thanks to FIFA’s brand protection efforts, “security” has also meant arresting anyone selling unlicensed merchandise or anything that isn’t World Cup-approved in zones around tournament venues.

And then there is the cost, already a central complain among Brazilians about their return to the world stage. South Africa spent $133 million on security for the 2010 World Cup, well more than the $89 million it had originally budgeted. Brazil in 2012 made a $900 million investment into security to make its World Cup “one of the most protected sports events in history.” The investments went into high-tech vehicles and surveillance equipment, according to the government.

Those investments will leave a legacy of their own, some of which may be needed in a country with a high crime rate and rampant cartel and gang activity. But they also come at the expense of those hospitals, schools, and other public services and could threaten to exacerbate — or at least continue — many of the police practices Brazilians and international organizations are already angry about.

To many, especially in the West, all of this may seem the price of securing an event as large as the World Cup. To FIFA, it certainly makes sense, given that large protests and stories of violence and terror would mar its signature event. But to people already concerned about police brutality and corruption and the overall wealth of power given to their law enforcement officials, those tactics could raise bigger concerns, especially if the practices and training meant to allay security fears during the World Cup linger after the tournament is gone.

And that’s again the point: while the hoopla and the world’s attention will leave after the World Cup and Olympics end, Brazil and its people will remain. The investments and policies that have been made to host those events will continue to have an impact. That’s just as true for security as it is for stadium costs, and when the focus is only what “security” means for those traveling to Brazil for the games, it’s easy to miss what it might mean for everyone who will still be there once the games are over.