The bomb squad rushed past crowds on Copacabana Beach to investigate a backpack abandoned near Rio’s ritziest hotel. Despite the potential for danger, local diners sipped their beers, watched an Olympic swimming race on a big-screen television and took selfies with a disposal robot amid what turned out to be a false alarm.
Meantime, a table of eight American tourists asked for the bill and scurried away.
Suspicious packages, muggings, stray bullets flying at venues, shattered windows on a bus and an Olympic security officer fatally shot in a favela. A smattering of incidents since the Olympics began has unnerved visitors to Rio de Janeiro even as some Brazilians say typically crime-ridden streets in touristy areas seem more secure.
“I feel safer now than I ever have here,” said Carlos Augusto, a military retiree who is a native of Rio.
Contrast that with the reaction of German tourist Cristina Van Hove, who was in line waiting to enter the basketball arena at Olympic Park Thursday night when an explosion startled her and a friend. The crowd grew quiet as an announcer said something in Portuguese that they couldn’t understand. Turns out, security had blown up a backpack left near a bathroom. The boom reverberated even inside Carioca Arena 1, where the game between Spain and Nigeria began in front of a scant crowd.
“We didn’t know what it was,” Van Hove said, adding that the sound took her back to the November terror attacks in Paris, when suicide bombers blew themselves up outside of the Stade de France as part of a coordinated attack by ISIS that left 130 people dead.
It’s Van Hove’s first Olympics, and despite all the social media chatter about alarming incidents here and there, she said she feels “relatively,” though not entirely, safe.
Newton de Oliveira, an independent security expert in Rio, said it’s impossible to gauge whether crime has gone up or down during the games because there is a lag in the gathering and releasing of statistics. Olympic organizers also haven’t put a number to the incidents of violence or false alarms.
“At this point, all we can have are personal impressions,” said De Oliveira. “Tourists might believe that crime is up because they are not used to living in a city with all the security and violence problems of Rio.”
Pervasive crime is part of life here. In the first five months of 2016, homicides increased by 18 percent to 1,870 in greater Rio. And in the wealthier tourist districts, locals and visitors have long been targets of muggings. For the Olympics, more than 85,000 security forces have been deployed in Rio - double the number of London in 2012.
The most serious incident connected to the games so far happened Wednesday, when one Olympic security officer was fatally shot after he and two others got lost near a slum close to the international airport. No arrests have been made. The city’s many favelas have not seen the stepped-up security present elsewhere.
In another harrowing episode, two Australian rowing coaches were assaulted Friday night walking back to their hotel in the posh Ipanema beach neighborhood. Two teens, one of them brandishing a knife, grabbed the coaches by their throats and pushed them against the wall. The visitors quickly handed over their wallets and mobile phones, a spokesman for the Australians said.
The next day, also near Ipanema beach, Portugal’s education minister was robbed at knifepoint on a busy street. The thieves were caught by police.
Stray bullets have twice flown into the Olympic sports complex in Deodoro, a rough neighborhood that’s playing host to events including equestrian and rugby. No one’s been injured. And on Tuesday, two windows were shattered on a bus carrying journalists; Rio organizers blamed rocks, although one passenger, who identified herself as a former American military officer, insisted the cause was likely gunfire. No one was seriously injured.
And in what’s starting to feel like a common occurrence at these games, bomb squads have set off several controlled explosions after finding unattended items such as the backpack near the basketball arena. Detonations also have happened near the finish line of a cycling race and, Tuesday night, outside of the Copacabana Palace hotel.
Authorities won’t say how many calls they’ve responded to, and while the vast majority of cases are immediately discarded, many are investigated, taking a toll on already overworked officers.
“You have to run things down,” said Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Counter terrorism and Intelligence. “The fact that you find out later it was nothing doesn’t mean that you didn’t need to do that. This type of vigilance is going to continue.”
Many tourists are only catching glimpses of the violence on TV or the internet, if at all.
“The risks were so exaggerated,” said Byron Rivas, an accountant from Colombia walking around the downtown port area that until an Olympic cleanup had been a dangerous place. “We got here worrying about security, and now we don’t even think about.”
For locals, the heightened police presence is something of a godsend. And as for the bomb scares? It’s all part of the Olympic show.
After the incident outside of the Copacabana Palace, waiter Francisco Freitas joked: “If the police allow me to grab that backpack, I’d give it to my son to take to school.”SHOW MORE