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Fear on the streets of Rio

Donna Bowater, Rio de JaneiroJuly 1, 2016

With little over a month until Rio de Janeiro hosts the Olympic Games, state authorities are grappling with the dual dilemma of worsening public security while on the brink of bankruptcy, reports Donna Bowater.

Brasilien Olympische Spiele 2016 - Medaillen Produktion in Rio de Janeiro
Image: Reuters/S. Moraes

When drug lord Fat Family was broken out of hospital by armed gang members in Rio de Janeiro earlier this month, his escape exposed both a revival of organized crime and the inadequacy of the security services.

Just two days before he was audaciously rescued, the acting governor of Rio state, Francisco Dornelles, announced public finances were in a "state of calamity." He warned of the imminent collapse of key services as the government struggled to pay its public servants, including police officers.

While Rio waited for an emergency federal loan of 2.9 billion reals (810 million euros; $900 million), the embarrassing getaway of Fat Family sparked a blundering and bloody manhunt, bringing more conflict and fear to the streets.

At least nine people were killed in nine days, according to reports, after Rio's military police carried out a series of raids in the north of the city, mainly in the Mare favela complex.

In the latest search for the gang boss on Wednesday elite police units carried out a two-hour operation in Nova Holanda, Mare, seizing a Glock .40 pistol, cocaine and marijuana.

But witnesses said the community, where 80 children were taking part in activities at NGO Redes da Mare, was paralyzed for at least four hours as helicopters and armoured vehicles closed in.

"It is unacceptable that in the 21st century we have to go through such situations," the organization said. "Many residents couldn't even manage to return home that day."

Mare sits alongside the main road out of Rio's international airport, which is one of the areas where the state government has asked for military reinforcement. There are reports of near daily gunfights between police and drug gangs.

Security plan for Olympics

As part of the Olympic security plan, which will start coming into force on Tuesday, 85,000 police officers and troops will be deployed for the Games.

Andrei Rodrigues, extraordinary secretary for major events security, gave reassurances on Wednesday that the security plan for the Olympics was as robust as it was for the World Cup and other major events in Brazil.

"Rio's reality is different. I don't know if it's better or worse, if going forward, it will worsen or improve," he said. "What we have to do is provide the security for the Games. We're planning contemporaneously for the situation that we are facing."

Civil police officers hold a banner protesting salary arrears
Police protests could carry on into the OlympicsImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/L. Souza

However, police unions have said the current crisis is the worst they have seen for years with unpaid officers even having to resort to paying for food for detainees.

Rio's civil police and firefighters drew attention to their plight with a banner at the city's international airport this week, reading: "Welcome to hell" and warning tourists that they were not safe.

More protests are planned for next week, while a strike over unpaid salaries and overtime has not been ruled out during the Games.

"The worst, the most emblematic of all of this, is that the food card to pay for food for arrested suspects is not working, so some police officers are having to put together a kitty to pay for food for those detained. And if they don't do this, they're violating the rights of the suspects," a spokesman for Rio de Janeiro's Civil Police union (ColPol) said.

"The Civil Police in Rio are suffering with a really bad situation that we haven't seen for a long time."

Civil police officers demonstrate against the government over salary arrears
Earlier this month, state authorities declared a 'state of public calamity' to release emergency fundsImage: Getty Images/AFP/V. Almeida

Earlier this week, Governor Dornelles said there was only enough money to fill up police cars until the end of the week.

And at the same time, violence continues to escalate. A 30-year-old policeman was assassinated on Sunday bringing the total number of officers killed in Rio this year to 50.

Daily shootouts

Observers have said security was a cause for concern for the Olympics and beyond, as Rio relies on federal support to cover the shortfall in the short term.

"We're seeing shootouts between police officers and organized crime groups almost on a daily basis, and not only in favelas, but also in the vicinity of a number of the Olympic venues," said Lloyd Belton, Latin American political and country risk analyst at S-RM, a business intelligence and risk management consultancy.

"The brazen rescue of Fat Family is indicative of just how powerful these groups are, and just how powerless security forces are to stop them, less than six weeks out from the Games."

The security crisis has already affected the image of the Olympics after Australian Paralympic sailor Liesl Tesch was robbed at gunpoint in the bayside neighborhood of Flamengo earlier this month.

Helicopters fly over the Mare slum complex
The favela Mare is near Rio's international airportImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

But while Rio will have an International Police Cooperation Center during the Games, boosting numbers with 250 officers from 55 countries, the outlook beyond September is precarious.

"With authorities having opted for quantity over quality, the sheer number of security personnel set to be deployed for the Games is likely to guarantee security for tourists and athletes," Belton added.

"Beyond the Olympics and Paralympics, there's a lot of uncertainty as to how authorities are going to guarantee public security in the city.

"The federal government emergency loan is only a stop gap for the Olympics, and funding post-Games for further favela occupations or a much-needed overhaul of Rio's police forces is unlikely to be forthcoming."