How will the 'people's pope' handle security issues in Brazil?

Policemen from the Peacekeeping Police Unit stand in front of Chapel of Sao Jeronimo, which Pope Francis is expected to visit during his upcoming trip to Rio de Janeiro, on Friday. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – When Pope Francis greets his flock on Rio’s white-sand Copacabana beach this week during his first international trip, he’ll do so in the same open-topped jeep“popemobile” he uses at the Vatican, breaking down the bulletproof barrier between the pontiff and the people.

But while he'll be traveling with only two Swiss Guards dressed in discreet civilian clothes, the "people's pope" may still have a hard time connecting with the 2 million people expected to greet him. More than 10,000 army, air force and navy officers, as well as 12,000 regular police and 1,700 elite security forces, will guard him during his 18 public appearances during his weeklong visit, starting Monday, to Brazil for World Youth Day.

Brazilian authorities have been meeting day and night to perfect the security plan for Pope Francis’ visit in what has been described as "the biggest police operation in the city's history,” by Roberto Alzir Dias Chaves, Brazil’s undersecretary for major events.

The armed forces will handle security of the air space, border surveillance, chemical and biological weapons, maritime defense and cybersecurity, according to a defense ministry spokesman. There will be maritime patrols off Copacabana beach during the pope’s welcoming ceremony there Thursday.


Authorities have even banned masks during the pope’s events, according to local Brazilian press. Guy Fawkes masks were worn during massive anti-government protests in Rio in June – and authorities fear a repeat. The anti-government protests spread to more than 100 cities and left dozens injured. 

Rio is notorious for crime – from rape to robbery – and has been rated as “critical” for crime by the U.S. State Department for the past 25 years.

While the pope's schedule has been widely distributed, a highly placed Brazilian security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue, told NBC News that some venue sites and meeting times could still change.

But the Vatican is brushing off any security concerns, saying Pope Francis “will do what he has always done.”

“He likes to greet pilgrims in an open-roof jeep in St. Peter’s Square, and he will do the same in Rio,” Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi told the press last week.

The Vatican is actually asking young pilgrims to help pitch in and provide part of the security at two large events on Copacabana beach. Instead of a physical fence, the Vatican will ask pilgrims to link arms to form a human chain. 

World Youth Day, the Roman Catholic Church’s biennial event, is an effort to energize the faithful – particularly young people – as secularism and other faiths continue to make inroads. 

Out of Brazil’s 200 million people, 73 percent identify themselves as Catholic.

An aerial view of the famous Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Friday, a few days ahead of World Youth Day celebrations. Antonio Lacerda / EPA

But concerns over the pope’s visit have also grown recently following the widespread protests in June against an increase in public services fees, corruption and costly stadium projects for the 2014 World Cup.

Brazilians have been in an uproar over the amount of money the government has had to spend to support this visit – estimated to be about $53 million – at the same time that people are demanding better health care, education and public transportation.

Security forces are bracing for at least six protests during the papal visit. One of the intelligence teams is tasked with monitoring social media to track the protests. 

Leonardo Portill, 26, questioned whether the expense and inconvenience of the pope’s visit are worth it. Normally his commute to one of the luxury hotels on Copacabana beach lasts 40 minutes. On Friday it took him almost three hours.

"If the kids [participating in World Youth Day] were bringing in tourist dollars, I would not mind the hassles. But they are staying with Catholic families, so they are costing the city money instead of earning revenue," he said.

Felipe Motta, a 22-year-old student, also questioned the costs. “I don't see a problem for the pope's visit. What I don't agree on is the cost of his visit. Public funds spent on this event are huge. Millions of dollars spent, and we have poor public services.”

But others were looking forward to the big event.

“It's a very important moment for us,” said Otavio Miranda, a 51-year-old teacher. “It's a new pope, a modern pope. It's a historic moment, and Pope Francis will bring his blessings to all Latin America, not only Brazil. Our country needs this positiveness.”

Luciana Martins, a 39-year-old salesperson, agreed. “I'm very excited about the pope's visit. What I like most about him is his simplicity, and I'm looking forward to the changes that he is going to implement,” she said. “He will visit Brazil in difficult times, I hear there will be some protests, but I hope he will bring peace and harmony to us all.”

The pope’s visit, in addition to the Thursday welcoming ceremony at Copacabana beach, will include a meeting with Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, a visit to one of Rio’s poor favela neighborhoods, a meeting with inmates and a visit to the Aparecida shrine, Brazil’s most revered Catholic pilgrimage site.

NBC’s Petra Cahill, Luis Eduardo Lerina and Reuters contributed to this report.