Visitors to Rio de Janeiro’s main airport on Monday were greeted with a troubling banner:
“Welcome to Hell.”
It was there for all to see, held aloft by first responders protesting late paychecks and poor working conditions.
“Police and firefighters don’t get paid,” it continued. “Whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro won’t be safe.”
On a roadway leading away from the airport, blue lettering on a bridge reads: “Welcome, we don’t have hospitals!”
Concerns about the Zika virus, the pollution in the local bay and the city’s rush to finish construction may all be superseded by a developing worry ahead of the Olympic Games: Rio’s ability to handle crime and crisis. One spokesman for the Rio police force declared, “We are in a meltdown.”
“We have a desperate government and agencies,” one Brazil-based counterterrorism agent wrote in a message to Yahoo Sports. “The danger has never been so close.”
Monday’s airport protest comes on the heels of a declaration last week by the state government of Rio that the area is in a “state of calamity” which could bring about a “total collapse in public security, health, education, transport and environmental management.” Brazil is facing dire threats from a collapsing economy, and the city of Rio has seen an uptick in urban violence since the World Cup was held in 2014. The backdrop is the ongoing impeachment process of Brazil president Dilma Rousseff.
Earlier this month, Rio’s largest public hospital was attacked by more than 20 armed gunmen, leaving one person dead and two injured. The group wore masks and carried assault rifles, and was able to free a drug kingpin, according to one local report. The hospital is one of five designated for the treatment of tourists during the Olympic Games, and it is the closest hospital to the Maracana Stadium, where the Opening Ceremonies will be held.
And on June 19, an Australian paralympian was mugged at gunpoint in broad daylight, and had her bike stolen.
The good news for tourists arriving for the Olympics is that the Games will be supervised not only by local authorities, but by a large international force. Olympic organizers are planning to use a security force that could more than double the size of that employed for the London Games in 2012.
Earlier this month, State Department managing director for overseas citizens services Michelle Bernier-Toth told Yahoo Sports, “We don’t have any information or recent incidents to lead us to believe there’s a specific risk for Brazil.”
She added: “The Department of State works very closely with the host government. We have been doing this for over a year in Brazil to assess the situation for both our teams and private citizens. We know exactly what is happening, and what the response would be. So we can be prepared for the expected and unexpected.”
Still, the instability of the region and the problems with local resources will make it more difficult for a force of any size to do its job. Rio is expecting 500,000 tourists in August, including roughly 200,000 Americans. And according to comments made to Rio’s O Globo daily newspaper by Rio acting governor Francisco Dornelles, Rio police will only have enough funds to fuel their cars until the end of this week.
“I’m optimistic about the games, but I have to show reality,” Dornelles said. “We can have a great Olympics, but if some steps aren’t taken, it can be a big failure.”