The World Cup is slated to run from June 12 to July 13 in a dozen host cities across Brazil. Brasilia's high hopes - and the billions it has spent to prepare - are tempered by a myriad of security concerns and logistical challenges that could pose challenges for visitors.
As Brazil's sports minister confirmed earlier this year, the primary security concern is the probable increase in crime in host cities. Hundreds of thousands of international fans and business travelers unfamiliar with Brazil may find themselves relatively easy targets of opportunity for pickpockets, armed robbers, express kidnappers, and traditional kidnappers. In addition to common criminals, organized crime syndicates may pose a threat. The First Capital Command (PCC), arguably the country's most powerful crime syndicate, made headlines in October 2013 when it threatened a "World Cup of Terror" if Sao Paulo state officials transferred the criminal leaders to higher security penitentiaries - which they did. While the threat is likely exaggerated, the PCC has proven capable of carrying out organized attacks against police targets and burning several city buses. Since the beginning of 2014, an unusually high number of city buses have been torched across the city; the motivations for these actions largely remain unknown. In about a third of the cases, bus burnings occurred during protests by citizens demonstrating against alleged police killings of relatives.
Widespread civil unrest is a prominent issue in the lead-up to the tournament. Many of the public grievances behind protests in 2013, including public transportation, healthcare, and education, have not been adequately addressed by the government. Many citizens are angered by what they see as a misappropriation of USD billions in government funds used to prepare for the World Cup that have primarily focused on finishing tremendously expensive World Cup soccer stadiums, rather than expanding and improving existing infrastructure and public transportation. A Jan. 24 Datafolha poll reflects this discontent: Only 52 percent of Brazilians support hosting the World Cup, down from 79 percent in November. This statistic represents the lowest approval rating to date in a country where soccer is immensely popular. A movement dubbed "Nao Vai Ter Copa" ("There Will Be No Cup") has staged several nationwide demonstrations. The largest were in Sao Paulo, attracting around 1,500 people on Jan. 25 and 1000 Feb. 22. Each ended in violent clashes with police, which resulted in fatalities, several injuries, dozens of arrests, and vandalism of storefronts. The movement has promised to continue demonstrations prior and through the World Cup, during which time protest marches will likely be larger. The violent anarchist group Black Bloc has often helped organize and participate in these demonstrations, usually inciting violence with security personnel and committing acts of vandalism.
Other social movements will likely protest during the Cup, including the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Pass Movement - MPL), which advocates for free public transportation. MPL-organized marches in Sao Paulo in June 2013 against a rise in public bus fares -- and the police's subsequent relatively harsh response -- is arguably what helped unleash the torrent of public protest that swept the nation. More recently, the MPL has demonstrated several times in Rio de Janeiro in February against another proposed hike in bus fares that resulted in clashes with police. Other groups that may protest include the Landless Workers' Movement (MST), and shantytown residents in Rio de Janeiro evicted from their homes to allow for infrastructure expansion projects.
A recent poll from the Getulio Vargas Foundation suggests 64 percent of regular police officers are not prepared to deal with protests, which increases the likelihood of police overreacting and injuring protesters unnecessarily, likely engendering more civil unrest. In Sao Paulo, where the largest protests will likely occur, police have been reauthorized to use rubber bullets, among other nonlethal techniques, to suppress unruly protesters. While these tools may give police an advantage, alleged misuses and severe injuries of protesters have spawned larger demonstrations in the past.
With infamously high urban crime rates and last summer's protests haunting the administration of President Dilma Rousseff, the government made security during the World Cup a major priority in an effort to reassure the world community. Brazil has spent USD 800 million on security for the tournament, which consists of 150,000 police and military personnel, including a 10,000-man-strong, specially-trained riot brigade to be deployed in key areas in each host city and outside stadiums. Initial reports indicate that stadiums will have a 1-3-km (0.6 -1.9-mile) security radius allowing only authorized cars to pass. In addition, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) plans to hire 20,000 private security officers. If a violent demonstration or other security situation overwhelms the police, Brazil's Armed Forces, with presidential approval, will be allowed to step in. Thus, while the government may have not have been able to address protesters' concerns, they will likely have the necessary force to contain the protesters.
New legal and surveillance measures could also help bolster security. The killing of a news cameraman by a protester during a recent demonstration in Rio de Janeiro revived momentum for an anti-terrorism bill in Congress that, if passed, could punish disruptive anti-government and Black Bloc activists with harsh prison sentences. This may serve to deter many would-be protesters. However, the proposal itself has sparked recent demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro that will likely flare up again if progress is made on the legislation. There is also movement by the Sao Paulo state police toward investigating whether the Black Bloc is, or is involved with, a criminal organization. If security authorities decide this is the case, it would ostensibly grant police forces more legal and enforcement instruments to be brought to bear against members of the anarchist group. In addition, it was recently revealed that Brazil's security intelligence agencies may have begun a surveillance program targeting potentially violent protest movements, likely including the Black Bloc, in order to help counterprotests during the Cup.
The government plans to enact other, less forceful, proactive measures. For example, FIFA recently announced it was going to change the venue of a World Cup screening area in Brasilia to a more secure location. Also, the government, at FIFA's request, plans to offer free public transportation to stadiums in a few host cities, including Rio de Janeiro. While this may help reduce the chances of the average citizen protesting, it is unlikely to temper the MPL movement. In addition, the free fares may end up being paid by additional taxes, which will inevitably add fuel to future anti-government marches.
Ground transportation disruptions present the second major challenge travelers and business will face. While officials are racing to finish stadium construction - Cuiaba and Curitiba currently present the greatest risk of not being finished on time - they have neglected to move forward with urban mobility projects in several host cities. One of the promised benefits of the World Cup was the improvement of the country's dilapidated urban and public transportation infrastructure. This means that traffic disruptions, already a major problem in metropolitan areas like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, will likely be worse during the tournament. Of the original USD 6.4 billion budgeted for 56 urban mobility projects across the 12 host cities, only 30 percent have been completed, which has used up over half the original budget. No projects were implemented in host cities Manaus and Cuiaba. Rio de Janeiro, however, may be able to finish many of its urban mobility projects by the start of the tournament.
An estimated 3.6 million domestic and international travelers will be flying across Brazil during the Cup. However, air travel to and within Brazil during the World Cup will likely be beset by delays and cancellations because several airport expansion projects will not be finished on time. Recently, the Civil Aviation Secretariat stated that improvements to the Rio de Janeiro International Airport (GIG) will not be completed in time. Other airport projects may not be ready either, including those in Curitiba, Cuiaba, Fortaleza, and Salvador. Even in cases where expansion projects are successful, Brazil's airport regulations and other factors may contribute to further delays. For example, in Brazil, airlines are held accountable and fined for flight delays when the number passes a certain threshold. While officials promise to have the International Airport of Sao Paulo (GRU) ready by May 11, it is unlikely there will be enough time to examine a new baggage-handling operation. This prospect prompted most domestic and the largest international airlines to refuse to operate in the newer terminal during the tournament, fearing fines caused by flight delays due to potentially slow baggage transfers. It is reasonable to expect this problem to exacerbate overcrowding at GRU during the tournament.
While the press has focused on the long delays and questioned Brazil's preparedness for the Cup, all of the stadiums will probably be completed on time. Stadiums are critical for the tournament, and the government will do everything in its power to finish them. As for transportation infrastructure, Brasilia will "make do" and probably make last-minute improvisations, as is customary in a country whose labyrinthine bureaucracy, red tape, and corruption typically impedes government projects. These ad hoc solutions will, however, mean the travel in host cities will be less smooth than previously envisioned.
According to tentative government plans, transportation to the stadium will be accomplished using Brazil's notoriously inefficient public transit system. Officials will attempt to ameliorate the situation by opening extra bus lanes and special routes - all of which, however, will still likely cause traffic disruptions for other travelers. Taxi availability will probably be scarce, due to the high volume of passengers. The government is currently constructing additional highways, but it is unclear how many will be operational by the time the tournament starts. Regarding airports, improvised solutions to deal with overcapacity, such as the planned construction of a temporary terminal in the northern host city of Fortaleza, may be replicated in Salvador, Cuiaba, and elsewhere.
Despite the significant security and logistical challenges outlined above, one can expect the World Cup to proceed without major incidents. The most likely trigger for a crisis would be the deaths of several protesters at the hands of police, or the armed forces being deployed to contain a demonstration. These events may snowball into larger demonstrations. Otherwise, the tournament should be relatively successful, with protests, traffic jams, and major airport delays occasionally grabbing media attention. Aside from potential victory of the national team, the main legacy of the World Cup in Brazil will likely be Rousseff's lost opportunity to make major improvements to Brazil's transportation infrastructure in a timely fashion. Poor transportation infrastructure is not only a major drag on the Brazilian economy, it is also a principal grievance among the population, and an issue that will probably continue to drive additional protests months after the tournament. The future utilization of expensive stadiums for less high-profile events in remote cities such as Manaus, will serve as a reminder to disaffected citizens of the perceived squandering of public funds by their government.
Advice for Travelers
Avoid public transportation whenever possible, given the increased threat of theft and assault. Some staff members at upscale hotels will speak English, but most taxi drivers do not. Be sure to have a written copy of the address for your location and destination in Portuguese to show drivers. Avoid displaying signs of wealth, such as expensive electronic devices or jewelry, when out in public. When walking, travel in groups, and remain near well-lit and well-policed zones of the city.