Shooting in San Juan Raises Questions About Security at WTC Events

Two athletes competing in Ironman Puerto Rico sustained injuries after getting caught in the exchange of gunfire between rival gang members in their vehicles. Neither athletes’ injuries were life threatening and both returned home safely. However unfortunate, the shooting appears a freak accident. On March 27th, one of the prime suspects, Abdiel Moreau Gifts, was arrested and is in the custody of police waiting to face charges in the incident.

While it’s too early to tell if the athletes will file an insurance claim against Ironman or what amount WTC might wind up paying, it’s clear that the specific circumstances were unforeseeable, much less preventable. In a more general sense, though, the incident provokes concerns about overall security and athlete safety at WTC events. Ironman is a global brand that has accelerated its expansion efforts in recent years. Has it placed quantity over quality in terms of event locations?

Global Expansion and Safety

Ironman 70.3 Puerto Rico has been in place since 2011. While technically not a South American country (it is classified as a Caribbean nation), it is one of fourteen WTC events south of the American border. Mexico hosts the preponderance of these events, followed by Brazil. Panama, Mexico, Ecuador, and Chile fill out the rest. Together, they’re a mixed bag of risks for the multisport tourist. Puerto Rico is one of the worst.

Despite its status as a Commonwealth of the United States, it has its share of Latin American-flavored troubles. The most recent reports show a murder rate of 26.2 per 100,000 people: the highest in the group of thirteen and ranking as the 16th highest in the world. The region has been plagued by gang warfare and police corruption for years, prompting the U.S. Department of Justice to inject $10 million into reform efforts. To their credit, the people of San Juan seem to be turning the corner, but last month’s incident demonstrates that there’s a long road to recovery.

Brazil falls next on the list. The country hosts three WTC events. And while no one can deny the picturesque landscape of the race venues, there are serious problems beneath the surface in host cities like Foz da Iguaco and Fortaleza. The country has an overall murder rate of 25.2 per 100,000 people as of 2012, lending to its crime rate being 18th worst in the world. Mexico is close behind at 22 on the list. Its murder rate is 21.2 per 100,000. Panama is 30th. Uruguay is among the safest countries in the world, and Pucon 70.3 host country Chile has a murder rate even lower than the United States. It’s even been praised for its exceptionally safe road conditions.

As a matter of fact, the most dangerous host cities for WTC events are within U.S. borders, specifically New Orleans and Miami. The former was the nation’s murder capital for years, but having reduced the rate to 53.2 per 100,000 the city is now down in the top five below cities like Detroit. Miami is the 58th most dangerous city in America, with the chance of becoming a victim of a violent crime 1 in 85, according to the Huffington Post. And trouble rears its head even in more pacific American cities. Ironman Chattanooga experienced sabotage issues last year when unknown parties threw tacks and oil onto the bike course. WTC personnel explained to local news that such is a frequent occurrence, but made no mention of efforts taken to prevent it.

Security Issues

Stan Kephart is a retired police chief and served as the Security Administrator for the 1984 Olympic Games. He now works as a security consultant for sports venues and events including Major League Baseball and the NFL. As Chief of Police in Salt River, Arizona, he coordinated with WTC officials on multiple occasions providing law enforcement support for Ironman Arizona. In an interview, he explained that the level of security at an event depends on several factors, and that there is no absolute standard for a bare minimum. It is established according to agreements between the event organizer and the host city during the permitting process.

“An event organizer has no legal responsibility to provide security for its participants, but there is always at least one governmental body involved. The organizer has to get a permit from the city, and they can’t obtain that permit without first getting approval from the police department.”

Kephart says that there are two primary components of a city police chief’s decision to approve an event: traffic safety and security. Traffic control is covered by the police department, usually at expense to the city. However, the law does not allow for police departments to use public funds to secure a private event. Instead, the organizer hires off-duty police officers at an agreed-upon rate. That rate is negotiated upfront, and this is when economics begin to come into play.

“It’s the police chief’s decision how many off-duty officers the organizer will need for security. He or she makes that determination based on their captains’ recommendations. The chief then tells the organizer the number of personnel required, the organizer agrees and the chief grants permission and certifies the event when the organizer goes to the city council for permitting. The event planner bears the cost. However, the city can haggle over costs because obviously having the event there benefits the local economy. So the number of officers and the amount they are paid is somewhat negotiable, depending on how the organizer, council and police department work together.

In some cases, the organizer can purchase equipment for the local police department, which is a form of reimbursement that reduces costs to the city’s general police fund. The officers then might work at a reduced rate because the department benefits. At the same time, the officers appreciate getting the extra pay as well. It’s always a negotiation, but typically the event benefits, the city benefits and the department benefits. Everyone comes out a winner.”

The quality of security does not depend solely on the number of personnel or quality of equipment, either. There is the matter of professionalism and attention to detail. Kephart says that when one looks at photos of police at the Boston Marathon before the tragic bombing of that event, you can see that the officers are turned toward the street watching the runners.

a katz /
(Photo credit: a katz /

“During the 1984 Olympics, we ensured that the Los Angeles Police Department securing the Opening and Closing Ceremonies faced toward the crowd at all times. You have to have the right mindset.”

Kephart says that making sure good security principles are followed is a matter of leadership, both within the police department and the event organization. “Some events use a combination of officers and private security. Private security can enforce event rules, but it’s up to police to enforce the law. So we tell volunteers and private staff not to intervene beyond protecting their own personal safety because they lack the training to do more. Their job is to call us and be a good witness later.”

Questionable Expansion

Ultimately, security at any Ironman event is a product of agreements between WTC and local officials. That’s probably a little more uniform within the United States, but may vary in different countries according to local and national standards. Every country is different both in its expectations and the level of training its personnel receive. In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security gets involved in events like the Super Bowl. Russian Spetsnaz– their elite special operations forces– were on hand during the Sochi Olympics. Other countries have more limited resources, and an Ironman isn’t a globally watched spectator event.

Given recent world events, however, WTC’s most questionable expansion move may be Ironman 70.3 Turkey. The country has recently become embroiled in the growing Middle East conflict with ISIS, and on March 20th operatives from that group attacked and killed Turkish security forces less than 300 miles from the planned race site in Belek. The U.S. State Department maintains that the risk of attacks on U.S. citizens travelling there remains high.

WTC increased its security measures at American events in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, and in fairness the greatest threats to athletes remain swim deaths and cycling collisions– extremely low-odds propositions in and of themselves. But outside of the United States is another story, and coordination with host nation security forces is not always easy.

WTC personnel turned down repeated requests for comment on how the organization approaches security and what consulting is done to assess the risks associated with new venues prior to expansion.

featured image credit: 20120628_125 Supreme Court Policeman and Capitol Cops via photopin (license)

About the Author

Jim Gourley is the author of Faster: Demystifying the Secrets of Triathlon Speed and The Race Within: The Story of the Ultraman Triathlon. He is a regular contributor to Tom Ricks' blog "The Best Defense." His work has been featured in Men's Health, Stars and Stripes, and several triathlon and cycling publications.