(photo from flickr by zoutedrop of Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 in Portugal)
When Pope Francis’s driver made a wrong turn in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he inadvertently drove executive protection (EP) into the world’s headlines. In the July 22, 2013, incident, the Pope’s motorcade departed from its cleared route and was repeatedly forced to a stop by great throngs of people pushing to reach the Pope through his open window. His security team eventually extricated his compact car from the crush, yet the episode put the protectee at significant risk. There’s a sermon in this story: car travel is one of the most dangerous things a protectee does and one of an EP specialist’s greatest protection challenges.
Executive protection always starts with a risk assessment. At the time of the visit to Brazil, Pope Francis had been in office only four months. He is the first pope from South America, so huge crowds of well-wishers were expected. But flocks of the faithful were not the only challenge. Brazil experiences a high rate of crime, and in the weeks leading up to the Pope’s visit, Rio had witnessed violent protests against the government. Just days before his visit, a protest in one of Rio’s most affluent neighborhoods erupted into looting, property destruction, and fires.
From the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has chosen to live modestly and with low-profile security to demonstrate solidarity with ordinary people. That is his prerogative, yet one must not underestimate the potential dangers of driving a VIP through teeming streets.
What could happen? On December 9, 2010, Britain’s Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, were riding through London’s theater district surrounded by a cordon of motorcycles. Making their way to a pre-Christmas show at the London Palladium, the royals were spotted by demonstrators who were violently protesting planned tuition increases. From a seething crowd of 400 to 500 persons, some 50 protesters pushed past the police escort and royal security guards. They threw paint bombs at the car, kicked dents into its doors, and smashed its rear window. They shouted “off with their heads!” and “Tory scum!” Some were carrying gasoline to use in arson attacks. The protectees were at great risk, and the incident raised the chance that protesters, too, could be harmed by security forces.