Protecting the pope

With protests sweeping the country, Brazilian security officials worry over security for Pope Francis’ visit.

It ended in chaos and confusion.

But last Wednesday night started with more than 1,000 protesters gathered in front of the home of Governor Sergio Cabral in the high-end Leblon neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. The vast majority of those protesting were peaceful, calling for the impeachment of the politician for, among other things, what they say is the poor use of public funds.

(Cabral was re-elected to a second term in October 2010 in the first round with 66 percent of the vote, more than three times more than his nearest challenger.)

Just before midnight, though, things turned ugly. It was then that a small group of protesters provoked each other, which led to more than an hour of running street battles and fires burning in the streets. By the end of it, numerous businesses had been ransacked and many canisters of tear gas fired.

Brazil’s largest television broadcaster, Globo, broke into regular programming on their 24-hour news channel to show live helicopter images of it all unfolding, while upstart youth-led independent media were broadcasting it all live from the ground from their smartphones.

The scenes of violence pointed to the unpredictability in Brazil right now, and they deeply worried officials who were already planning increased security for Pope Francis’ visit to the city, which begins on Monday.

On Saturday morning, President Dilma Rousseff unexpectedly called a meeting with her four top cabinet members, including defense and justice ministers, primarily to discuss last minute security arrangements for Rio this week.

Federal and local security officials generally point to three key security elements related to the pope’s visit that they are most concerned about:

Personal security for the pope: One and a half thousand specially trained agents from the Federal Police will act as Pope Francis’ personal security, more than double the number originally planned for. Of those, 50 will be “shadowing” the Pope at all times, and another 200 (some of them undercover) will be in the immediate area whenever he is in public. But the Vatican said the pope doesn’t want security to interfere with his desire to get up close and personal with people who want to see and hear him. Pope Francis is already breaking security norms by reportedly opting on Monday to ride to the downtown Cathedral in an open-top vehicle rather than the more secure “pope-mobile” that is the preferred option for Rio security officials.

Security for the people: The Catholic Church’s World Youth day events are coinciding with the pope’s visit to Rio. But add to that the increased interest in Latin America of Pope Francis, and the number of religious pilgrims and tourists in the city is expected to swell to nearly two million. The military was initially expected to deploy a maximum of 12,000 soldiers to help with security, but that number has now gone up to 14,300. The local police in Rio were initially talking about around 7,000 police specifically assigned to pope-related events, but that number has now doubled to about 14,000. The biggest concern for security is the sea of bodies concentrated in one place during Pope Francis’ appearances and masses, and how to avoid a mad stampede of people in the event of an emergency. The Rio government has also declared three days of city holidays this week to help relieve the strain on traffic and public transport.

Protests: This is by far the most unpredictable aspect of security preparations. Several protests are planned for this week in Rio, none directly aimed at the pope or the Catholic Church, but officials are still deeply concerned and trying to avoid a repeat of last month when the country saw the most widespread protests in history lead to almost daily clashes with riot police. “Compared to what we saw during the Confederation’s Cup, things are now different because the government has taken measures and offered solutions that have demobilised some protest groups,” says Jose Monteiro, a top Ministry of Justice official in charge of security for large events in Brazil. “But we have an intelligence agency that is monitoring possible protests, to quantify the number of people, who might be involved, and see their behaviour, and see what measures can be taken on a case by case basis.”

In regards to the Leblon clashes this past week, Jose Beltrame, Rio’s state security secretary, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying: “There is a protocol always in place that can be implemented to deal with organised demonstrations, but there is no strategy in the world for the police to act when you have chaos and confusion.”

Chaos and confusion: Two words security officials in Rio are hoping they don’t have to use this week.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel