SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — Brazilian security forces are using undercover agents, intercepting emails and rigorously monitoring social media to try to ensure that violent anti-government protesters do not ruin soccer's World Cup this year, officials told Reuters.
Demonstrations in recent months have been much smaller than those last June, when Brazil hosted a dress rehearsal tournament for the World Cup, shaking President Dilma Rousseff's government and contributing to an economic slowdown.
But they have still resulted in vandalism of banks and paralyzed parts of major cities as a hard core of perhaps a few thousand protesters nationwide, some of whom wear masks and call themselves "Black Blocs," clash with police.
Rousseff's government fears the protests, the most recent of which carried the slogan "There Will Be No World Cup," could severely disrupt the tournament, which kicks off on June 12 in Sao Paulo and ends with the final on July 13 in Rio de Janeiro.
Widespread images of shattered storefronts, frightened tourists and injured police and protesters — all of which have occurred already — could tarnish an event that will attract an estimated 600,000 foreign visitors and is meant to display Brazil's emergence as a global power. Protests are being planned in all 12 cities that will host matches.
The recent fragility of Brazil's economy, plus a presidential election in October in which Rousseff will run for a second four-year term, have raised the stakes even further.
The media office at Brazil's SESGE, a division of the Justice Ministry charged with World Cup security, referred questions about government surveillance initiatives to the Defense Ministry, which declined comment.
But officials speaking on condition of anonymity described widespread and growing surveillance of Black Bloc members, the extent of which has not been previously reported.
In addition to monitoring the group's communications on Facebook and other social media, intelligence agents have infiltrated the movement and passed along information to police before and during recent demonstrations, two officials said.
Authorities have also used advanced technology to locate the computers of violent protesters and gain access to their communications, with the intent of identifying leaders and monitoring their activities, one official said.
The officials emphasized that such efforts were not being directed toward the Brazilian public at large, but at members of violent groups. They declined to specify which agencies or police forces were conducting the surveillance, or provide more details about how the information was being used.
The tactics reflect the Rousseff administration's belief that, unlike last year's mostly peaceful, political protests involving the middle class, the Black Blocs are a criminal problem and should be treated as such.
"Last year everybody thought this was the 1960s. But now it's just Seattle," one senior official said, referencing protests that famously turned violent at the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization.
The surveillance risks prompting a backlash in a country with bad memories of a 1964-85 military dictatorship that spied extensively on suspected leftists including Rousseff herself, who was then a member of a Marxist guerrilla group.
Fernando Grella Vieira, who oversees state police in Sao Paulo, declined to comment on intelligence procedures but said security forces "completely respect the right of people to protest in peace."
"We are acting to ensure the safety of the people against those who seek violence," Grella said.
A protest in Sao Paulo on Jan. 25 offered a vivid example of the kind of disorder that could potentially spoil the World Cup.
Following a peaceful demonstration of about 1,500 people, a few dozen protesters split away to cut off major downtown avenues, set fires and try to topple a police car.
When police pursued a group of protesters into a hotel lobby, panic ensued among guests, some of whom were ordered to sit on the floor as officers tried to identify the protesters and arrest them, according to local media. Other guests, terrified, sought refuge in their rooms.
The protesters, and those who have studied them, say such incidents have been aggravated by the government's response — which they say fundamentally misses what the movement is about.
Black Blocs are an international phenomenon, having first appeared in Europe in the 1980s during protests against nuclear power and other issues. Some academics have compared them to early 20th-century anarchists, noting their key role in anti-globalization protests like the 1999 event in Seattle.
In some cases, the groups have been leaderless and bereft of any organization, united only by their tactics and the way they dress — typically in all black. In others, some coordination does take place.
In Sao Paulo, the Black Blocs have taken on a local flavor. Adherents are mostly males between the ages of 15 and 23, and are members of the new lower-middle class that blossomed when Brazil's economy boomed last decade, said Rafael Alcadipani, a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation business school who has researched the group and interviewed its members.
That demographic has made big strides in consumption, able to afford washing machines, flat screen TVs and other goods for the first time. But many of these people also suffer from poor health-care facilities, bad public schools and long commutes as the government has not been able to match their rising income — and expectations — with better services.
The Black Blocs "believe that the Brazilian political system is broken and that it doesn't represent them," Alcadipani said.
Waiting for protests to flourish again
A Black Bloc member who gave her name as Ana said many members believe vandalism is the only way to attract media attention to their political views.
"It's an extremely diverse group but the one thing that unites us is the belief that we can't silently accept what politicians are doing to us," she said.
Black Blocs in October severely beat a police colonel, breaking his collarbone and stealing his handgun.
Protesters counter that the Sao Paulo police have also used brutal tactics, pointing to the shooting of a suspected protester on Jan. 25. Police say they acted in self-defense.
The government's biggest fear is that the size and violence of the protests will explode again as the World Cup kicks off.
Whether that will happen is anybody's guess, as it depends on factors ranging from the economy to the performance of the Brazil team, which has the most World Cup trophy wins with five. Many believe that, if the hosts are ousted early, Brazilians will be less engaged in games and more likely to take to the streets.
The Black Blocs' tactics have frightened many in the middle class, a major reason why demonstrations have shrunk, failing to attract more than a few thousand people since last July.
However, if police go too far in their repression, it could have the opposite effect. A heavy-handed response to small demonstrations last June enraged many Brazilians, and was a major reason why protests mushroomed in numbers at the time.
That tricky balance helps explain why authorities are eager to embrace intelligence and other new tactics.
Grella, the Sao Paulo police chief, said police have studied how other countries such as France handled Black Blocs. Coming weeks will see the debut of a new "Capture Brigade" of uniformed police without firearms that will be charged with detaining violent protesters, he said.
Police efforts to detain protesters and register their names, and in some cases press charges, have also had an effect. The 200 or so Black Blocs who have been identified by police in Sao Paulo mostly stayed away from the Jan. 25 protest because of fears they would be prosecuted, said Esther Solano, another academic who has studied the group.
Nevertheless, new members have appeared to take their place — a foreboding sign for later this year.
"As long as the government doesn't address the main issues, people are going to keep protesting," said Alcadipani, the professor. "Nothing has changed since last June."
Editing by Kieran Murray and Grant McCool.