Small Wars Journal

The Security Challenges of the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics

Mon, 05/30/2016 - 7:14pm

The Security Challenges of the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics

Bryan Lee

With the 2016 Summer Olympics quickly approaching, the world has been paying more attention to the preparations for the games.  The media has reported extensively about the several challenges that the Olympics are currently facing including land rights, pollution, the Zika virus outbreak, transportation, and crime.  However, the media has remained largely silent about the security preparations for the games.  This is rather unusual given the severity of the threats that the Olympics face.

The Rio Summer Olympics face two main security threats.  The first threat is related to the current political crisis in Brazil that has pitted Dilma Rousseff against right-wing opposition.  This crisis dates back to the disputed presidential elections in 2014 that Rousseff won.  Rousseff’s opposition has since accused her of corruption and lying about the government deficit to improve her re-election prospects in 2014.  These accusations eventually led to the initiation of impeachment proceedings against her.  Since then, Rousseff has lost most of her political support and the impeachment process has proceeded quickly.  On 12 May 2016, the Senate voted to suspended Rousseff’s presidential powers for 180 days, pending the outcome of a trial that will determine whether she will be removed from office. Vice President Michel Temer, who is also accused of corruption, has since assumed power as the interim president.

This political crisis has created tension in the country.  Throughout the impeachment process hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to demonstrate.  While these protests have so far remained peaceful, the specter of political violence is rising.  Dilma Rousseff has denounced attempts to remove her from office as an unconstitutional coup.  This rhetoric carries political implications and can spark civil unrest.  In addition, Michel Temer’s rise to power has done little to abate the crisis, as he is unpopular and could potentially be impeached as a result of the corruption allegations levied against him.  As a result, this political spectacle will likely continue into the future. 

So far, protesters have engaged in peaceful demonstrations and political activity.  However, continued political instability will likely increase tension in the country.  This has raised concerns that political violence could breakout in the streets and that peaceful demonstrations could escalate into crowd violence between the supporters of different political factions.  This has the potential to quickly spiral out of control and could pose a security threat in Rio de Janeiro if the security services are unable to contain it.

The Olympics also face a security threat from jihadist terror organizations.  ISIS has made credible threats to attack the Olympic games.  These threats should not be surprising, as the hundreds of thousands of tourists who are expected to visit Brazil during the games would make an attractive target for a jihadist organization.  In response to this threat, Brazil has hired 85,000 security guards to provide security.  This security presence is more than twice the size of the security force that the UK provided for the 2012 London Olympics.  However, despite these precautions, the Rio Olympic games will remain vulnerable to terrorism.

These security vulnerabilities result from Rio de Janeiro’s urban maladies.  Rio de Janeiro is famous for its favelas, or densely populated slums, which are controlled by criminal organizations.  Since the favelas are controlled by criminal organizations, large parts of the city fall outside of government control.  Richard Norton classifies urban areas like Rio de Janeiro as “feral cities.”  These cities are marked by poverty, crumbling infrastructure, pollution, and the breakdown of government control and social services. This is problematic because the breakdown of government control in feral cities creates a void that terrorists can take advantage of.  Most notably it provides numerous ways for terrorists to covertly enter the city.  In the context of Rio de Janeiro, terrorists could be trafficked into the country through already established drug routes.  Alternatively, since Rio de Janeiro is a littoral city, terrorists could enter the city by sea, undetected.

Once in the country, terrorists would likely head to the favelas because the lack of security forces would provide them with a safe haven.  In order to do this, the terrorists would probably need to have a contact inside of the favela to provide them with a base.  They could then use their contact to access the black market to obtain additional weaponry and equipment to carry out an attack.  This possibility has raised concerns that terrorists could emerge from the favelas to carry out a Mumbai or Paris-style attack.  In addition, if the terrorists were to encounter resistance, they could theoretically withdraw back to the favelas to regroup and plan a second strike, raising the specter of a prolonged urban battle.  Any such attack could cause devastating citywide chaos and numerous casualties.

Favelas also complicate counterterrorism efforts.  Since the police do not exercise control over the favelas, it is difficult for them to obtain intelligence about the activities that are taking place within.  Furthermore, even if the police were able to obtain actionable intelligence about a terrorist plot, they would have to fight their way into the favela to disrupt it.  However, the favelas are notoriously difficult to enter in the face of armed resistance.  As a result, any attempt to enter the favelas would almost certainly result in heavy casualties, thus making counterterrorism operations difficult.

The Rio Summer Olympics clearly face many security threats, which has increased the possibility of violence during the games.  In order to reduce this threat, several measures will need to be implemented.  First, Brazil’s political actors need to ensure that the current political crisis does not escalate.  As a result, all political actors need to be mindful of their rhetoric and ensure that they do not incite their supporters to violence.  The Brazilian government will also need to take action to secure the city.  The police will need to crack down on smuggling routes to limit opportunities for terrorists to be trafficked into the city.  In addition, they will need to prioritize maritime security to ensure that terrorists cannot enter Rio de Janeiro by sea.  Lastly, the government needs to place armed rapid-response security teams at strategic points throughout out the city so that they can quickly engage terrorists in the event of an attack.

With the Olympics rapidly approaching, Brazil needs to address a myriad to issues to prepare for the games.  However, since the games face serious threats, the Brazilian government needs to focus heavily on security.  Implementing security measures to confront these threats will be difficult.  However, since Rio de Janeiro was able to host the 2014 World Cup without any major incidents, there is cause for optimism.  As a result, there is reason to believe that Brazil is capable of confronting these security challenges.


Norton, Richard J.  (2003).  “Feral Cities,” Naval War College Review. LVI(4): 97-106.

About the Author(s)

Bryan Lee is a student at University College Cork, pursuing an MA in Strategic Studies.  Before that, he obtained an MSc in Development Practice at Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin and a BA in Economics and Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  His research interests include sustainable development, humanitarian affairs, UN peacekeeping missions, and international security.