Brazil Carnival City Suffers Surge in Murders as Police Strike

A surge in homicides as a result of a police officers’ strike in northeastern Brazil is causing travelers to cancel their Carnival holidays and may spread to the country’s party capital Rio de Janeiro.

About 1,000 soldiers sent by the federal government yesterday continued to surround the Bahia state assembly in Salvador, which hundreds of officers and their families have occupied for a week to demand higher wages. The homicide rate in the city of 2.7 million, Brazil’s third-largest, has more than doubled to leave 100 dead since Jan. 31, when a third of Bahia’s 30,000 police walked off the job, according to the state government.

TV images of masked bandits holding up buses at gunpoint and troops firing tear gas at protesters caused a 10 percent fall in hotel reservations in Bahia, said Pedro Galvao, head of the state’s travel agents association.

The strike is renewing concerns about public security as Brazil prepares to host hundreds of thousands of tourists during the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics two years later. Several cities, such as Recife and Rio, have among the world’s highest homicide rates, and human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have repeatedly criticized the use of excessive force by Brazilian police.

“It’s very disconcerting,” Galvao said by telephone from Salvador, which in less than two weeks will host Brazil’s second-biggest carnival celebration. “Tourism is very sensitive to these things.”

Fiscal Challenge

Police in the states of Rio, which begins its world-renowned, four-day Carnival on Feb. 19, and Espirito Santo, will decide over the next week whether to go on strike as well. All are demanding the approval of a constitutional amendment that would establish a national minimum salary for uniformed forces.

That’s a challenge for many of Brazil’s cash-strapped states, whose ability to raise revenue and sell debt are limited by federal law enacted a decade ago to rein in public spending that for decades fueled inflation.

“In a poor state revenues are smaller and the weight of the payroll is higher,” Raul Velloso, an economist specializing in public finance, said by telephone from Brasilia. “Police are seeing the economic boom and none of it is going into their pockets.”

In Rio, the entry-level salary for police officers is 1,137 reais ($661) per month.

“The world’s sixth-largest economy can’t continue to pay a miserable wage to those who risk their lives for the Brazilian people,” reads the website of the movement calling for a nationwide police strike in favor of the amendment.

U.S. Travel Warning

Salvador’s homicide rate in 2010 was 55.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, according the Map of Violence published by the Instituto Sangari, a Sao Paulo-based think tank. By comparison, the murder rate in New York is 6.5 per 100,000, according to a 2011 United Nations study.

The U.S. Embassy in Brasilia advised U.S. citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Salvador, citing “a risk of violence” and reports of increased looting and car thefts.

Jacques Wagner, Bahia’s governor, has offered to increase wages by 6.5 percent to match last year’s inflation rate. Backed by President Dilma Rousseff’s government, he’s also issued an arrest warrant for strike leaders, saying that instigating violence is unacceptable. Strikes by security forces in Brazil are illegal, according to a 2009 Supreme Court decision.

Amid the threats of a strike by some police officers in Rio, security officials have tried to reassure residents that security will not be affected during Carnival. Governor Sergio Cabral is also pushing lawmakers to approve this week a bill to raise wages for uniformed officers by 39 percent over the next two years.

“We’re making a big budgetary effort to start right now in February to raise wages,” Regis Fichtner, the Governor’s chief of staff, told state lawmakers yesterday.

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