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The FBI Is Training Brazil's New Tech-Savvy Riot Police

From spy drones to city-wide CCTV nets, Rio's military cops are taking a page from the Bureau's book on pacification.

Bruce Douglas

Image: Shutterstock.

If the sum of all the protests in Rio de Janeiro during the World Cup consists of one man taking off his shirt and throwing his shoes, the shock troops of Rio de Janeiro’s military police have got it covered.

In a demonstration to journalists of the skills the battalion had picked up from an FBI-led training course, 19 police officers, each dressed like emo Ninja Turtles, clasping Perspex shields and rubber batons, successfully apprehended the semi-naked shoe-thrower.

The improbable scenario was not lost on the police’s spokesman, Commander André Luiz Araújo Vidal. “Unfortunately, what you saw today was just a small part of our training,” he said afterwards. “Most of our troops are busy preparing for a demonstration later today.”

Given the wave of unrest currently convulsing the country, it seems unlikely the shoe-thrower will prove their only challenge.

Photo: Bruce Douglas

Here is a short list of the people who’ve been on strike in Rio de Janeiro over the past week: bus drivers, teachers, security guards, museum staff, municipal engineers, architects, even geologists.

Elsewhere in Brazil, activists from the Homeless Workers’ Movement are occupying a patch of land in São Paulo just a few miles from the stadium that’s due to host the opening match of the World Cup.

In Belo Horizonte the garbage collectors have been on strike. In Manaus, nurses are threatening to walk off the job, as are the workers in the local brewery, jeopardising the beer supply to the Amazon.

Federal troops have been deployed in Brazil’s spectacularly violent northeast, where the military police have been on strike in the World Cup host cities of Salvador and Recife. In Salvador the murder rate sextupled during the two-day protest. In Recife, seven people were killed in the first seven hours of the last week’s strike. Images of lootings and panicked security guards firing rounds into the air dominated the TV news.

Then there’s the “Não Vai Ter Copa” [There’s Not Going To Be A World Cup] movement, most of whom accept that There Is Going To Be A World Cup, but want to use the media spotlight to draw attention to Brazil’s mismanagement, inequality, and corruption.

On May 15, the group organised protests across the country. Around a 1,000 people marched in both Rio and São Paulo. The events passed off peacefully, save for the smashing of the odd bank window.

On the march through the centre of Rio, I met Jorge Luiz Monteiro, a teacher who’d been on strike for the past week. “The World Cup is an opportunity to get more people out,” he said. “I think that we are protected from the police violence now as the whole word is watching.”

Colonel Vidal, commander of Rio's riot police, shows off crowd-control equipment and techniques in front of visiting FBI agents Brian Hartsfield, Michael Anton, Greg Wing, and Keith Morrison. Photo: Bruce Douglas

The authorities are nervous that the combination of restive unions and anti-World Cup sentiment could produce another wave of demonstrations like those that shook Brazil last year. Back then, and in the sporadic demonstrations ever since, the police’s violent response only compounded the protests.

Hence the arrival of four FBI agents, plus representatives from the LAPD and the Chicago Police Department, to train Rio’s Batalhão do Choque, the unit of the military police dedicated to the control of serious civil unrest.

According to a press release, the course featured lessons on crowd control, operational planning, the use of force, decision-making, and the use of intelligence to identify lawbreakers and media strategy. The trainers’ own media strategy was pretty simple: don’t talk to the media. None of the FBI agents, the cops were willing to comment on the course. Nor was the US consulate.

Based on the equipment and tactics of the French riot police, the average shock trooper comes equipped with a black helmet, visor, and protective padding made from polymer, rubber and EVA armour plates. They also carry stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear-gas canisters. “Most of our equipment is made here in Brazil,” Araújo says, proudly. “Brazil has great weaponry expertise.”

So what are the FBI doing here?

“Teaching us how to communicate better," Araújo added. "There’s a huge amount of logistics behind the Batalhão do Choque. We need technology and information for our troops to act smartly.”

Feeds from the 2,000 cameras monitoring Rio beam into the second-floor operations room of this Integrated Command and Control Centre. Photo: Bruce Douglas

To that end, new Integrated Command and Control Centres are being set up in host cities across the country. Brazil has three main police forces: the military police, the civil police, which carries out investigations, and the federal police, which tackles crimes against the government. Unsurprisingly, they don’t always get along, so these centres are designed to ensure a more co-ordinated response to crime fighting.

Colonel Carlos Alfradique showed me around the control centre, where feeds from some 2,000 cameras monitoring the city beam into a massive wall of 98 monitors in the second-floor operations room. “All the IT systems of the different forces: federal, civil, military work here,” he told me. “During the World Cup units from the Brazilian armed forces will work here too.”

Among the new kit for policing the World Cup is a radio gateway to ensure rapid communication between the police forces’ different 2-way radio systems. The military police, for instance, use the TETRA system while the federal police use TETRAPOL. For the World Cup they will be able to communicate between forces.

Feeds from the 2,000 cameras monitoring the city beam into the second-floor operations room. Three roving police vans will patrol the city, each fitted with cameras on the end of telescopic arms. Around 500 cameras, fitted with audio devices, have been installed on the city’s police cars, meaning they will be able to travel to trouble spots to provide visuals.

The federal police also have two Israeli-made Heron drones at their disposal. At present there is a law prohibiting their use in urban areas, but that may be changed ahead of the World Cup.

Feeds from some 2,000 cameras monitoring the city beam into a massive wall of 98 monitors in the second-floor operations room.

I visited the empty situation room on the third floor, where commanders will gather in the event of a serious incidence of unrest. A huge, wooden circular table surrounded an interactive table-top monitor with a large touch-screen map of the city.

Colonel Afradique drew a line in red virtual marker pen around a 7,000 square metre area fitted with 80 sensors that can detect the location of any gunshot fired, and the calibre of weapon used. All very impressive, but regaining Brazilians’ trust is another matter.

Mobile ICCC. Photo: Bruce Douglas

Back on the march in Rio, I asked another protester, Maria Silva, 28, who has been participating in demonstrations since last June, if the police response had changed at all.

“The international media is focused on Brazil, and on Rio in particular, so the police have become more controlled. You don't see so much tear gas and rubber bullets flying around because they’re worried about Brazil's international image,” she said.

With no sign of the strikes diminishing before the World Cup, the Batalhão do Choque’s training and equipment is likely to be put to the test.