PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil — On the afternoon of Sept. 26, 2014, Gracieli Kronbauer picked up her 5-year-old daughter from school and headed to play in a nearby park. She parked her car and was walking toward the swings with her daughter when a young man approached, put a pistol to her chest and demanded her keys. Kronbauer, a nurse at a public clinic, handed them over and the robber disappeared with the car, leaving her and her daughter shaken but not physically harmed. Though she called the police immediately, the car and everything in it — purse, phone, computer — was gone for good.
Kronbauer’s carjacking was one of 6,938 such incidents in Porto Alegre in 2014, according to state government statistics. That number jumped to 9,480 last year, up 89 percent since 2010. Crimes such as robbery and murder also have spiked sharply in recent years.
“Things are constantly getting worse here. You used to see police on street corners, or patrolling in their cars,” said Kronbauer, who is now 38 and has lived in Porto Alegre most of her life. “Now I don’t see them anymore, at least not in my neighborhood.”
A financial crisis in Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state in Brazil, isn’t helping. This week, the state announced a sixth consecutive month of delayed salaries for police officers. In response, police are planning a slowdown in early August and cautioning the public to stay off the streets.
And so, when a few dozen French swimmers and coaches landed in Porto Alegre on July 25 for a final pre-Olympic training camp, the large police detail assigned to protect them prompted many in the city to ask, “What about our security?”
“Everybody deserves to be safe … and [the French team] deserves to be well-received here in our country,” said Kronbauer. “But it’s also unfair to us to dedicate some of the few police we have just to [protect them].”
The French team’s security — all paid for by the nearly broke state — includes the 24-hour presence of four uniformed officers at the hotel and a plainclothes contingent (police won’t say exactly how many officers) shadowing members of the team as they move about the city.
Lt. Col. Najara Silva dos Santos, a deputy commander at the city’s police headquarters, said considerably more resources are being devoted to the French swim team than was the case for any of the soccer teams that came for the 2014 World Cup. Porto Alegre hosted five games in the tournament, including a first-round match between France and Honduras.
“We can’t ignore what’s happened recently in France. We can’t think that it can’t happen here,” dos Santos said. “I’d like to think not … but it’s better to prepare for situations than be surprised.”
Dos Santos said that local police are not coordinating their efforts with any French intelligence or law enforcement agencies. Local police have not learned of any credible threats, and the swimmers’ stay in Porto Alegre has been without incident. (An unannounced midweek foray into the local nightlife by some members of the delegation, dos Santos said, did leave police scrambling to keep tabs on everyone.)
The French Swimming Federation did not make athletes or staff in Porto Alegre available for interviews, and did not offer any statement on the team’s security and public safety.
While acknowledging the public discontent over the large police presence assigned to the French team, dos Santos said that the swimmers’ safety and the public’s safety are one in the same.
“If something happens to the team, it will affect whoever is nearby,” she said. “We can’t think, ‘if a bus blows up, no one else will suffer.’”
Regardless, she added, when the French team leaves Tuesday for Rio de Janeiro, 700 miles to the northeast, a large weight will lift from Porto Alegre.
The 1.5 million people who call the city home, though, will still be facing the gloomy reality of rising crime and police budgets stretched to the breaking point. Kronbauer, who remembers her carjacking in vivid detail, was changed by the experience. She parks in a garage at a nearby shopping mall when she goes to that park now, and when a stranger draws near on the sidewalk, she can feel herself recoil.
As funding dwindles for the public safety apparatus in Porto Alegre, it gives her some consolation to know she can rely on public goodwill.
“I think it’s important to say that Brazilian people are very warm,” she said. “There’s solidarity here in difficult times. People help each other.”
It gives her some consolation, at least, this ability to rely on public goodwill, even as the formal public safety apparatus in Porto Alegre feels like it’s becoming less and less reliable.