By Paulo Prada
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – A crowd of about 200 soccer fans awaited the Dutch national team on Monday outside its temporary home at the Caesar Park hotel, a 23-story tower along Rio de Janeiro’s spectacular beachfront.
But their orange jerseys, placards and party hats weren’t the only thing odd at an entrance normally frequented by business executives and high-end tourists.
How about the 18 Brazilian soldiers, in helmets and flak jackets, wielding clubs, stun guns, pistols, and rifles? Or the helicopter patrolling above the famous Ipanema beach and the Navy patrol boat cutting through white-cap waves just offshore?
“Whoa!” said Bjorn Koerselman, a 42-year-old Dutch airline executive. “They are really taking security seriously.”
In a country that has long wobbled between order and chaos, that’s exactly the sort of reaction leaders hope to elicit during the World Cup soccer tournament that kicks off on Thursday in Sao Paulo and proceeds across 11 other Brazilian cities for the following month.
After years of construction delays, alleged corruption, infrastructure shortfalls and bickering with FIFA, soccer’s governing body, Brazil hopes the Cup at the very least will be safe for the 2 million people expected to travel to games, outdoor viewings and other related spectacles.
Around 100,000 police officers are patrolling host cities, and President Dilma Rousseff has deployed 57,000 soldiers, sailors and other troops, coordinated jointly at command centers in each host city, in what is the largest mobilization by Brazilian forces in recent history.
The government is investing about $850 million in overall security, which covers everything from protecting the 32 teams to containing possible street protests against the World Cup to airspace surveillance, be it with radar and air traffic systems or the constant flights of helicopters now buzzing host cities.
“The goal of Brazil with the Cup was to promote the country, to show off our cities, and to attract tourists,” said General Jamil Megid, a government advisor, in a recent interview. “Every part of the police, military and intelligence forces have to work together, with an integrated command, in order to do that successfully.”
Brazil is no stranger to big events. Rio, for instance, regularly hosts more than 1 million revelers for annual Carnival celebrations and New Year’s festivities.
But the scale of the World Cup poses unique challenges.
There are the disparate geographic and social risks present in far-flung venues across the continent sized country – from Amazon riverboat traffic in the jungle metropolis of Manaus to the influx of Argentine hooligans by car in the temperate south.
And the tournament, of course, faces the risks associated with any major international event – from terrorism to cyber attacks to street demonstrations.
Already, Brazil has been rocked by an ongoing series of protests and labor strikes that erupted last June during a warm-up tournament to the Cup.
Unhappy with poor public services, a stagnant economy and rising prices, critics contrast $11 billion in Cup spending with the paltry amounts Brazil invests to provide basic social services and solve everyday problems.
In recent weeks, federal, state and local officials at the command centers in host cities have pored over contingency plans and rolled out the ramped-up security.
Many locals are surprised by the surge, evident to anyone familiar with the conspicuous lack of security that often prevails here, a country with some of the highest crime and murder rates on the planet.
Over the weekend in Rio, leisurely sailboat owners were surprised by Navy patrols asking for documents. Residents of a building downtown learned that the military wants their rooftop for radars to scan the sky over the Maracanã, the stadium that will host seven games, including the final.
So far, a few hiccups have emerged.
Soldiers were ordered to supplement squad security after striking teachers surrounded Brazil’s own team when its bus passed through a protest two weeks ago. Police fired tear gas on Monday to disperse striking workers at a subway station in Sao Paulo, prompting complaints about tactics that during last year’s demonstrations turned violent.
Still, Brazilians for the most part are happy to see some readiness.
“It’s not common for those of us who live here,” says Junior Andrade, a 21-year-old business student watching the expectant Dutch fans. “I wish we had security like this every day.”
(Editing by Kieran Murray)