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Taylor Barnes, @tkbarnes, Special for USA TODAY Sports

In recent months here, a mother with bullet wounds was dragged down a busy road tethered behind a police car as officers alleged they were taking her to the hospital.

A teenager was chained by his neck to a pole with a bicycle lock and left naked along a popular Rio beach by vigilantes who suspected him of being a criminal. The commander of Rio's much-touted "pacification" community police suffered a head injury during a shootout with criminals in a pacified favela that overlooks the hotel where England's team will stay during the World Cup.

When Brazil won the rights to host the World Cup and 2016 Olympics, its toughest image challenge was to convince outsiders the country was safe. Long dogged by the reputation media portrayals such as the 2002 film City of God gave the country, the government aggressively pushed measures to reform its public security policies.

Visits by President Obama and Vice President Biden to Rio's favelas, low-income communities that originally were squatter settlements, occupied by pacification police were seen as nods to a perceived improvement.

Now, with the World Cup starting in less than three weeks, a mood of doubt has grown about the country's ability to handle not just the safety of the more than a half-million foreigners expected to come to Brazil, but also that of its citizens in their day-to-day lives.

Reforms like the Rio pacification program have promoted a safer image of the country in recent years. The community policing program began in 2008 and garnered wide attention in the news media for placing 24-hour police patrols in communities once dominated by drug traffickers, where in the past police staged occasional anti-drug operations that often turned lethal. Other cities, including World Cup hosts Salvador and Curitiba, also created similar community policing units.

But Brazil as a whole has made uneven strides in public security in the years since it won the rights to host the upcoming sporting events. The national murder rate has remained stable over the past decade. Though prosperous cities in Brazil's southeast -- such as Rio and Sao Paulo -- have experienced drops in violent crimes, the country's deadliest regions -- its north and northeast -- have seen drastic increases.

Brazil tallied the highest annual number of homicides -- more than 50,000 in 2012 -- of any country in the most recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Crimes against property also are staggeringly high. In Rio, there were more than 30,000 muggings last year -- and those were just the ones reported.

"You know what's going to be the legacy of the World Cup for public security? Nothing," Janio Gandra, president of the Brazilian Confederation of Civil Police Employees, told local media this week.

The Civil Police, responsible for investigating crimes, went on a partial strike in at least a dozen states this week, including Rio, Brasilia and Minas Gerais, which are hosting World Cup games.

"There's no project meant for citizens themselves. The taxpayer will continue to not have public safety," Gandra said.

Strikes by the military police, who are responsible for fighting crime on Brazil's streets, have taken place in three World Cup host cities -- Natal, Salvador and Recife -- since April. Rumors of a military police strike in Rio have circulated on social media, though local authorities have said they are in frequent communication with police leaders in order to stave off such an event.

"Everyone will take advantage of the moment of the World Cup," said Paulo Ricardo Paul, a retired police officer who formerly worked in the internal corrections unit and was jailed during a police strike in 2012.

Paul, a popular blogger who writes about public security, described new police recruits in Rio -- the military police force has grown by 15,000 since the city was announced as the World Cup host in 2007 -- as deeply dissatisfied with their salaries, training and work conditions, to the point where some do not have lunch tables in their ad-hoc stations set up in pacified favelas.

"The deficiencies of the police in Rio de Janeiro are so great that you even have cops eating on the floor," Paul said.

Still, local authorities project confidence about their ability to host the World Cup safely.

"I think we have the environment for a peaceful solution," said Roberto Alzir, the subsecretary responsible for mega-events in the Rio security secretariat, when asked about the potential for strikes here.

Rio's government says about 20,000 law enforcement agents, including military, police and municipal guards, will be employed in the city during the event, with reinforced policing in tourist areas, such as the Christ Statue and the downtown Lapa party neighborhood.

"It will be our largest security operation in the history of the city," Alzir said.

Nationwide, about 100,000 agents will be employed during the World Cup, according to the federal government, which has invested more than $1billion in security forces and infrastructure for the event.

Officials are aware of the potential for anti-World Cup demonstrations, similar to the ones that brought hundreds of thousands of Brazilians to the streets a year ago around the Confederations Cup. But they also speak cautiously about how they will handle such events, as the heavy police response and frequent use of rubber bullets and tear gas last year garnered negative media coverage around the world.

"If the protests are peaceful, there is not a problem," Alzir said, adding that such demonstrations are necessary for the maturing of Brazil's democracy.

To inspire confidence, Brazilian authorities cite the success of recent big events carried out here without large safety issues, such as the 2012 Rio+20 United Nations sustainable development conference, the World Youth Day visit from Pope Francis and the Confederations Cup in 2013. The pope's visit brought an estimated 600,000 tourists to Rio, in addition to many locals who participated in the events. About 250,000 fans, most of whom were Brazilian, attended the Confederations Cup.

But the World Cup will involve far larger crowds and a number of tourists traveling across broader regions of the country to the 12host cities, which stretch from the Amazon to the chilly southern tip of the country.

Seemingly apprehensive about violent street crime occurring during the event, police in Sao Paulo recently published a humorlessly practical tip sheet for foreign tourists.

If robbed, the guide says, "Don't react, don't scream, and don't argue."


May 23, 2014




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