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The pope's pricey visit to Brazil

A visit from the new pope may be an honour for local Catholics, but it poses unique and complex security concerns.
Last modified: 24 May 2013 00:20
The pope's movements will have to be closely guarded while in Brazil [Reuters]

Local and federal security officials in Brazil - primarily in Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia - are increasingly preoccupied over providing protection for Pope Francis' seven day visit to Rio de Janeiro July 22-28.

Officials here at the highest levels in recent weeks have put into place what will be the largest, most intricate, and unprecedented protection operation ever mounted in the country for a visiting high-level dignitary, officials have told me.

The papal visit presents a unique set of highly complicated security concerns never before seen in Brazil.

It will be the Argentines' first international trip as Pope and the fact it’s to Brazil, the largest Catholic country, makes it an incredibly high profile journey. It's also a long time he'll be spending in Brazil - seven days in Rio from July 22-28, with a packed schedule to events - and coincides directly with the World Youth Day gathering in the city, expected to bring in upwards of 3 million Catholic youth to the city.

The information below has been revealed in recent weeks from reporting in the Brazil media, coupled with conversations with top federal and state public security officials.

The Plan

As soon as Pope Francis steps foot in Brazil, he will immediately be guarded 24 hours a day by a 60 member team of specially trained Federal Police agents with capabilities of "close quarters" protection of high profile subjects, and ability to "eliminate" any immediate threat. These agents will provide a "bubble of security" around the Pope at all times until he boards his plane to head back to Italy. An unknown number of those agents will be "within arms length" of  Pope Francis at all times, including while he is giving mass, if they deem it necessary.

Federal officials have designated a Level 1 status – the highest security alert available – for the pope's visit.

Four military helicopters will be available to the Pope at all times to whisk him around the city. One of the choppers will be equipped with an "aerial hospital" should the need arise, the other three will always fly with the Pope but two will act as decoys, carrying the federal police agents and the Pope’s immediate, most important staff.

Ten other police and military helicopters will available in Rio providing backup security and reconnaissance, tracking the Pope’s movements and surrounding areas.

Somewhere between 8,500 and 12,000 military soldiers will be deployed to Rio as well. President Dilma Rousseff has declared Guaratiba – a suburb community 60km from Rio where the Pope is expected to give a mass to 3 million people - a "Guarantee of Law and Order" zone, allowing the military to temporarily partake in public security and policing activities within the zone. Other key World Youth Day events will also take place in the municipality.

Brazil’s specially-trained and well-equipped National Force security officers - based in Brasilia and under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice - will deploy somewhere between 1,200 and 1,600 officers to Rio to act as a "super police force" to guard areas where they are needed during pope movements.

The state of Rio will have 44,000 officers (both street police and investigative officers) available and working in rotating shifts. All vacation and non-essential training days have been cancelled during the week the Pope visits Rio. “Any and all personnel we have at our disposal will be working,” one local official said.

Rio's much-feared special force police unit, called BOPE, has been in recent weeks doing security operations in rough neighborhoods that are in or around where the Pope will be visiting.

And Brazil’s national intelligence service, ABIN, will have plain clothed agents in Rio, and a command center. They have already been in communications with neighboring country intelligence services about sharing of information of potential threats.

When it comes to Pope Francis' visit to Brazil, this is a country giving off the impression they are leaving nothing to risk, and taking no chances.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel