The expected travel of half a million people to Brazil for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro has spurred increasing excitement. However a history of terrorism in the region, economic recession, and a possible Zika epidemic has cast a shadow over the games. Athletes, their families, and those traveling to see the games are left wondering: Will we be safe?
Against this backdrop, the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies held a special seminar titled “Latin American Security Challenges: From the Olympics to Zika” on June 23 at the International Law Institute to address the growing safety and security risks surrounding the Olympic games this August.
“Most parts of the world are always subjected to instability, particularly today,” said Chairman of the International Law Institute Don Wallace, Jr. “We know about the near chaos in the Middle East and the lack of certainty in Europe.”
Wallace continued, “Latin America is a relatively secure and stable part of the world, but I gather it also has security challenges and that’s why we are here.”
Security Concerns: Terrorism and Iranian influence in the region
Lawlessness and transnational organized crime have led to a number of security challenges facing Latin America today, including human trafficking, narco trafficking, cybersecurity concerns, and the presence of armed militant groups.
These issues trace their roots to the region’s turbulent history with militantism, including civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, ongoing conflict in Columbia, and foreign adventurism in the region, most notably Iran’s influence within the hemisphere, according to Former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Robert Noriega.
Iran has had a presence in Latin America for a number of years, most notably with Hugo Chavez’s regime in Venezuela, which Noriega claims has been downplayed by the US government.
“I talked years ago with my Israeli friends, from folks in the government who were frankly shocked by some of the assertions we had been making about Iran’s engagement in the hemisphere and in particular the fact that they were embedded in this exercise with the regime of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela,” Noriega said.
Venezuela’s government has also included alleged members of Hezbollah, including Lebanese born Ghazi Atef Nassereddine, who served as the second in command at the Venezuelan embassy in Damascus, Syria and was present for the meeting between Iran’s ambassador to Syria, Ahmad Mousavi, and his Venezuelan counterpart, Imad Saab Saab, at the Venezuelan embassy on May 10, 2010.
Nassereddine has been accused of being involved in money laundering operations for Hezbollah and providing visa and travel documents to people from Syria.
Venezuela is not the only country in the area with ties to Iran. There is speculation that Iranian influence has spread to Argentina as well. Documentation has emerged with Hugo Chavez’s signature containing instructions to transfer $250 million to the Argentines to support Argentine/Iranian social programs in Venezuela, which would increase Iran’s presence in the country, according to Noriega.
The 2015 death of Alberto Nisman, the chief investigator of the 1994 car bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires which killed 85 people, has also been linked to the Iranians.
In 2015, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) introduced legislation requiring the Department of State to do a report on the extent of Iran’s influence in Latin America. The five-page report determined that Iran’s influence in the region is waning. However, Noriega argued that the report was not extensive enough to make an appropriate conclusion and that the concerns of Iranian expansionism in the region should not be dismissed.
“If we don’t appreciate this problem,” Noriega stated. “You are going to see a terrorist attack in the hemisphere sponsored by these people.”
There have been terrorist threats made against Brazil, including a suspected Islamic State (IS) member posting a message on Twitter insinuating future violence against the country, according to a report by Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
The tweet was posted in November 2015 by Maxime Hauchard, a French national identified as an executioner in IS propaganda videos.
“Brazil, you are our next target,” the tweet said.
“We are talking about very sophisticated capabilities,” Noriega said about Brazilian efforts regarding anti-terrorism activity. They know what’s going on in their territory.”
The Rio Olympics will feature 85,000 security officials–twice as many as the 2012 London Games–to protect tourists and the estimated 15,000 athletes traveling to Brazil for the games.
Due to calls for more security by local officials, the Brazilian government said it would provide an extra “visible security presence” starting July 1 to protect the tourists who are expected to start arriving for the August games following high profile attacks related to pre-existing criminal activity in Rio.
Protests in the region have escalated over the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff over charges of manipulating government accounts, following the commencement of procedures of her impeachment trial on May 12, 2016. Her presidential powers and duties have been removed until her Senate trial ends.
Failure of the authorities to combat police killings in anti-crime operations is sabotaging security efforts. According to a report released by Human Rights Watch on July 7, one fifth of all homicides in the city of Rio last year were police killings. Rio police have killed more than 8,000 people in the past decade, including atleast 645 in 2015, with nearly two people a day. The report claims that many killed by police were in custody, unarmed, or trying to flee.
“Brazil has one of the highest levels of homicides in the world, with around 42,000 people killed with guns every year,” Atila Roque, Amnesty International’s Brazil director, said in a statement.
“You don’t want to be the host country of the World Cup and the Rio Olympics and tell everybody that you think that there is a terrorism problem. You want to say that everything is great or that we have things taken care of,” Noriega added.
Late last month, police officers, firefighters, and paramedics protested at Rio’s airport over late paychecks and poor working conditions.
Security concerns: The spread of Zika
The spread of infectious diseases, such as Zika, has also spurred concerns over the safety of the games, with close to 100,000 cases of the virus reported in Brazil alone, according to Senior Fellow at Potomac Institute for Policy Studies Rashid Chotani.
Multiple regions in South America have been considered hot spots for the mosquito borne virus due to high temperatures. Mosquitos tend to thrive in temperatures above 80 degrees. While it has been reported that the medium high temperature in Rio in August is 78 degrees, it has not quelled fears that a Zika epidemic could spread to North America.
“We also appreciate the fact that Rio de Janeiro is essentially at the heart of this epidemic,” Chotani said.
The Zika virus itself is a minor viral infection. However, due to certain mutations, it can bring about complications, including Guillain–Barré syndrome, which is an ascending paralysis.
Zika is especially devastating for pregnant women. The virus can cause complications with the fetus and result in serious birth defects, including microcephaly, a condition in which infants are born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development. Currently there have been approximately 250 pregnant women who have been affected with Zika in the United States.
“There are several problems besides the really awful complications of Zika, first it’s a very hard diagnosis to make,” stated Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at George Washington University Gary Simon. “Fever, rash, almost indistinguishable from Dengue, which is very common in the Caribbean and South America.”
At this point in time, there are no cures for Zika and testing is very limited. A common test administered looks for the presence of the virus in the blood, which is seen by some as problematic since after the first seven days of infection, traces of the virus will not be found in blood.
“Is this an infection that is transmitted by an infected person to a transfusion recipient? The answer to that is yes,” said Professor of Medicine and Pathology at Georgetown University S. Gerald Sandler. “It is clearly an infection that is transmitted by blood and there are cases that are neatly observed.”
There have been numerous reports of Zika in the United States, with about 250,000 suspected cases, out of which 8,000 have been confirmed. Only 20 percent of cases are symptomatic. The types of mosquito that can carry disease are found in the United States in approximately 40 states.
“The CDC recommendation for the United States is in an area that there is active mosquito borne transmission of Zika virus, we don’t have it yet in the US, but it’s coming, when it does happen the plan will be to import blood from regions of the US that do not have active mosquito borne transmission,” said Sandler.
The United States is currently experiencing blood shortages, which would make the CDC recommendation exceedingly more difficult to accomplish.
“There is no way that you can take a significant supply of blood out of the United States today and send it to Rio,” said Gerald regarding a possible Zika outbreak during the Olympic games in Rio.
The increase of blood donations in the United State are highly recommended in combating the virus, especially in the case of an active mosquito borne transmission, which is likely.
“A lot of people are calling for the Olympics to be postponed or cancelled or moved and I think that is a little silly,” said Associate at the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Tara Kirk Sell. “I don’t think that the Olympics are big enough to cause this big catastrophic event.”
The number of people traveling to Rio for the games represents less than one percent of travel to all Zika infected countries. An estimated 400,000 people travel across the Americas on a daily basis.
The general consensus of the panelists speaking at the seminar regarding the virus was that it is highly unlikely that the mass travel to Rio for the Olympic games will lead to a massive Zika outbreak. However, it was recommended that pregnant women avoid travel to areas that are particularly susceptible to Zika, such as Brazil, and that the host country take appropriate measures in combating mosquito transmission of the virus.
“These infectious disease events are going to keep happening and we need to have a strategy to deal with them in the long run instead of trying to take care of it at the last minute,” said Kirk Sell.