Button attack sends alert ahead of World Cup, Olympics
SAO PAULO: Heavily armed gunmen targeting high-profile sports stars on the streets of Brazil it’s the ultimate nightmare scenario for Olympic and World Cup organizers.
The attempted attack on Formula One champion Jenson Button has raised alarm bells about security in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
“It’s not a very nice feeling having to come to work in a bulletproof car with a policeman as the driver and two police cars, one in front and one in back,” Button said.
“But that’s the way it is.”
The Brazilian government said it is confident visitors will be safe during the World Cup and Olympics, but an official with the Justice Ministry acknowledged that “without a doubt there is still a lot to improve.”
Button was the victim of an attempted robbery while leaving the Interlagos track Saturday evening, escaping thanks to the skills of an undercover driver who had been hired to drive McLaren team members in armored cars.
The driver rammed through several vehicles as the assailants ran toward them with machine guns in hand, swiftly driving to safety through traffic.
At about the same time Button’s car was attacked, three Sauber team engineers had to go through a similar ordeal while leaving the track. Five armed men forced them to stop their vehicle and hand over their belongings.
“Authorities have four years to try to improve security here, to do the decent thing,” said Guaracy Mingardi, a former national public safety subsecretary and former UN adviser on crime.
“Although this is the type of crime that exists everywhere, it shouldn’t be happening during major events like this.”
Security has always been one of the main concerns since Brazil was selected host of the World Cup and the Olympics. The South American country doesn’t traditionally have to worry about threats of terrorism, but armed street crimes are not new to Brazilians.
Attacks on drivers who stop at traffic lights or slow their cars in areas with intense traffic are not uncommon in some poor city areas such as the one Interlagos is located, surrounded by low-income houses and shantytowns.
“This is a problem that every well-off Brazilian is subjected to. It happens every day here,” Mingardi said Monday.
“But because it happened with a foreigner, the repercussion is much bigger, that’s the only difference.”
There had been problems at Interlagos in the past, with spectators and team members being robbed in the neighborhood, but it was the first time a driver became the victim.
In 2007, a group of gun-wielding youths held up spectators in three cars leaving the circuit, and in 2006 members of the Toyota team were attacked by armed youths as they left the track. No one was hurt.
“There is no way to completely avoid these crimes, anywhere,” Mingardi said.
“But we can improve the security during these major events, especially by perfecting the police intelligence.”
Security is usually increased in the Interlagos area during the Brazilian GP, but gang members sometimes are still able to take advantage of the high number of people attending the event. Button said he thinks it was a random attack and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
McLaren and most of the other teams take extra safety measures at the Brazilian GP, giving their drivers armored cars and hiring local police officers.
Rio 2016 organizers and World Cup organizers declined to comment on the attempted attack on Button.
The International Olympic Committee said “security is a matter for the local authorities and we have absolute confidence that the Brazilian and Rio authorities will provide a safe and secure games in six years time.”
The Brazilian government mentions the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro to show that authorities are able to successfully host major events.
Robson Robin, an official with Brazil’s public safety secretariat at the Justice Ministry, said security will be significantly improved during the World Cup and the Olympics, but the bigger challenge is to guarantee safety to those wandering away from where the events are happening.
“Without a doubt there is still a lot to improve,” Robin said.
“But there is a lot being done because of the World Cup and the Olympics, so security will be improving gradually for everyone in Brazil in the next few years, not only the visitors. As we get near these major events, it will be safer even in the more vulnerable areas.”
Robin said that what happened to Button and other Formula One team members were isolated cases.
“We won’t need tourists worrying about getting armored cars when they come here for the World Cup and the Olympics,” he said.
“That’s not the reality.”