Walking to breakfast recently in Rio de Janeiro, Fernando Echavarri and two other members of the Spanish sailing team were robbed at gunpoint. According to reports, five teenagers flashed pistols, then stole cellphones and other electronic gear from them.
Echavarri and his teammates were headed to Rio’s Santa Teresa neighborhood, a popular hilltop area with narrow cobblestone streets that is a 20-minute walk from the Olympic sailing venue. Santa Teresa is often described as one of the city’s safer neighborhoods, and it’s where the Spanish sailors booked accommodations for pre-Olympic training.
“We were a bit naive, a bit too daring, and were lucky to have survived,” Echavarri told the Associated Press. “We were too confident, and being confident in Rio is not a good thing.”
Come August, street crime may present a greater threat to the health of Olympic athletes and visitors than the much talked-about Zika virus.
Brazil has some of the highest violent crime rates in the world. In Rio, favelas — slums typically ruled by drug lords and rife with gangs — climb the hillsides and sprawl beside wealthy neighborhoods. The proximity of so much poverty with so much wealth has created an environment ripe for robbery, assault, and murder.
A series of high-profile crimes has underscored the risk.
On May 7, a 17-year-old girl, Ana Beatriz Pereira Frade, was slain on the way to the airport in Rio. The shooting happened on a main road not far from many Olympic venues. According to police and media reports, when five to eight armed bandits surrounded the car Frade was riding in, her father tried to drive away. In response, one of the robbers fired into the car and hit Frade.
The episode prompted Brazilian soccer legend Rivaldo to advise Olympic fans to stay away. On his Facebook page, he wrote, “Things are getting uglier here every day. I advise everyone with plans to visit Brazil for the Olympics in Rio — to stay home. You’ll be putting your life at risk here.”
There also was a recent gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in a Rio favela. It made international headlines and prompted Brazil’s interim president, Michel Temer, to create a federal police unit focused on crimes against women.
“Zika is one of many safety and security concerns leading up to the Rio Olympics, but it’s not the only one,” said Juliette Kayyem, who served as President Obama’s assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security. “I fear that Zika has distracted us from other threats that people could face.
“Don’t think the Olympic spirit is going to protect you,’’ she warned. “There’s going to be crime because there already is crime. I think everyone will be throwing money at the problem, and holding their breath for two weeks.”
But Brazil will be throwing considerably less money at the problem than originally planned. The country’s political and economic chaos puts government officials and Olympic organizers at a financial disadvantage. Rio organizers have cut roughly $550 million from the security budget. While that translates into a 20 percent reduction, there will still be a very heavy, very visible security force in place for the Games.
“The situation with the sailing team is that they simply haven’t mobilized all the security personnel yet because we’re still a couple months from the Olympics,” said former FBI agent Raymond Mey, who has more than 30 years of experience dealing with major event security, including work at multiple Olympics. “A couple weeks before the Games, they’ll start to mobilize all the military and the police. You’ll see this huge, visible presence of military and police that they hope will act as a deterrent to all the street crime that is a normal occurrence in Brazil.”
In addition to the 85,000 soldiers and police who will patrol the city, Kayyem expects “an influx of security personnel — from private security hired by national teams or even individual athletes and also public sector resources such as Secret Service who travel with VIPs or other nations’ security personnel — to protect the Olympics and the brand.”
“It will be a patchwork that will attempt to minimize the risk to everyone there,” said Kayyem.
“Will it be perfect? Certainly not. But let’s be honest, neither was Atlanta,” she said, referring to the 1996 Summer Olympics, where a bomb led to the deaths of two people and injured more than 100 others.
The need to be careful and the need for more policing in Rio are nothing new. Certainly not for Echavarri — the member of the Spanish sailing team and a 2008 gold medalist — and the sailing community. In 2009, while competing in the Volvo Ocean race, Echavarri was robbed at knifepoint near Rio’s Copacabana Beach. In 2014, British sailors were mugged at knifepoint while walking from the sailing club where they were training to their hotel.
From the bombing in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park in 1996 to a stabbing at the Drum Tower in Beijing in 2008, there is always the potential for random attacks at the Games.
This summer, the Olympic family will be the best protected. Security resources will be focused on Olympic venues, and the places where athletes, coaches, media members, sponsors, International Olympic Committee officials, and foreign dignitaries will stay and the roads they will travel.
Consider that the legacy of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre, when 11 Israeli team members were taken hostage and then killed by Palestinian terrorists.
As Kayyem pointed out, “Neither Brazil nor the International Olympic Committee can afford some reporter getting kidnapped.” Or an athlete or coach or official becoming any kind of headline-making violent-crime victim.
Typical of every Games, an invisible but easily perceived bubble will surround members of the Olympic family, the people who enjoy special travel lanes and side entrances to competition sites.
It will be a different experience for the average visitor. Outside of the areas used for competition, they won’t have the added buffer of the bubble.
So between Zika and street crime, Rio may be a less walker-friendly, less celebratory, less spontaneous Olympics for many. Participants and fans will have to know the scene, and be cautious.
“We made a big mistake,’’ Echavarri conceded. “We should have caught a taxi, taken a car, and avoided a thing like this. We have to be careful, but the city needs more policing.”
Heeding the advice of Echavarri, sailors and sailing fans probably won’t stroll between Guanabara Bay and the boutique hotels and restaurants of Santa Teresa. Even so, Andy Hunt, CEO of World Sailing, has said he would ask Olympic officials for increased security around the sailing venue area.
Sports governing bodies will likely relay advice to their delegations to restrict movement around Rio. But what about the average tourist?
“People should go if they want to see an Olympics,” said Kayyem, who is a board member of the International Centre for Sport Security and offers safety advice in her new book, “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.”
“They should take the necessary precautions about where they’re traveling, who they notify when they travel, roads they’re taking, people their communicating with, parties they go to.’’