Police Go on Strike in Brazil, Mayhem Ensues: Dom Phillips

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"WAR IN BAHIA," screamed the Feb. 7 front page of the Sao Paulo tabloid Mais. "Army enters conflict, fires gas bombs and rubber bullets, deaths reach nearly 100."

In little more than a week since it began Jan. 31, a strike by thousands of police in the northeast Brazilian state of Bahia has led to a soaring murder rate -- and raised fears that chaos will engulf this year's Carnival holiday.

A third of the state's 30,000 police are on strike, and crime and violence have taken over streets in several cities, including the state's historic tourist capital, Salvador, which is famous for its Carnival celebrations. There had been 136 murders in the state by Feb. 9 -- more than double the normal rate.

Police want a substantial salary increase and an amnesty for the 12 strike leaders for whom arrest warrants have been issued. (Three have been arrested so far.) Negotiations between strike leaders and state-government representatives at the local archbishop's residence have so far failed to resolve the standoff. Bahia Governor Jaques Wagner has accused policemen of being behind some of the increased crime since the strike began.

Although Brazilians have expressed sympathy for Bahia police living on subsistence wages, they have also vented anger about the discord that their strike has provoked.

"Lack of respect for Brazilians," declared a Feb. 7 editorial (unavailable online) by Mais editor Vicente de Aquino:

We pay tax -- too much, by the way -- to receive quality education, health, transportation and public security. But unfortunately this is only rhetorical. The people of Bahia -- including the police on strike -- don't receive this fundamental respect. Earning a starvation salary, the police stop working. Taking advantage of the situation, people on the margins, manipulated by bad police, trigger a wave of terror in Salvador. Deaths increase, like a civil war.

To keep order, the federal government sent troops and armored cars onto the streets. About 1,000 soldiers surrounded the state assembly building in Salvador, where some 300 of the strikers, armed, had gathered with their families and refused to come out. Water and electricity to the building were cut off.

On Feb. 6, scuffles broke out when strikers who were stuck outside the assembly building were restrained from joining their fellow officers. Troops fired rubber bullets and threw tear-gas bombs. Inside, the strike leader, police officer Marcos Prisco, wore a bulletproof vest and was surrounded by armed guards.

Coming just weeks before Carnival, when millions traditionally flood Salvador's streets, the strike is a potential disaster for tourism. Americans have been advised not to travel to Bahia, and the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper reported that hotels and guesthouses were getting calls and e-mails from tourists worried about security. Bloomberg News reported that hotel reservations are down 10 percent. Strikers inside the assembly sang together: "Oh, ho, ho, the Carnival is over!"

On Feb. 8, Folha's front page announced: "Government fears that police crisis could arrive in six states." One of those states is Rio de Janeiro, which could plunge the tourist capital into chaos just 10 days before Carnival.

Milton da Costa, a Rio de Janeiro policeman, wrote on the Indignant Citizen blog:

Understand that the idea `TOGETHER WE ARE STRONG' is inappropriate for the democratic state and will not immediately resolve a wage problem that affects the police institutions of almost all the states of the federation … Public order needs to be instantly restored in the state of Bahia, where social peace and the lives of the civilian population are under the grave threat of disorder.

The debate soon took on a political dimension. As Reginaldo Silva, a professor at the State University of Southwest Bahia, told news site SRZD:

This was just a fuse. The problem has been spreading for decades and now the government uses the media against the police even though they are able to pay good salaries, both for them and for teachers. Meanwhile, the National Force is treating the police officers like criminals, dogs.

Critics noted that Brazil's ruling Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT), which has roots in trade unionism, had condemned government repression of a police strike in Bahia in 2001 -- when it was in opposition.

Writing in Folha de Sao Paulo, columnist Eliane Cantanhede noted that Wagner, Bahia's PT governor, "Started a confrontation with the policemen on strike, called the army and put his foot down even though there are bodies piling up due to lack of security … Moral of the story: Strike in the government of others is good, but in ours it can't be done."

On the battle lines, there was a pervasive sense that anything could happen. On Feb. 7, the striking policemen who were massed outside the assembly building delivered a birthday cake to General Goncalves Dias, the army officer in charge of the troops keeping them out. He smilingly accepted the cake, and Globo's G1 website allowed a sunny break in its relentless strike coverage.

"We're not going to enter in conflict, please," the general said, as he hugged one of the striking policemen in front of the cameras. "It's my birthday, man!"

But the cake armistice didn’t last long. On Feb. 9, the army tightened its cordon on the strikers, and stopped food from entering the assembly. That evening, TV Globo broadcast phone calls, recorded "with the authorization of the Justice Department," which seemed to capture Prisco and another striker planning acts of vandalism -- a major propaganda blow to the police campaign. With conditions inside deteriorating, strikers finally evacuated the assembly building, and Prisco was arrested and accused of inciting vandalism.

But the strike continues, and newspaper reports suggest higher-ranking police may soon join in. At least 70 pre-Carnival events have already been canceled. The battle isn’t over yet.

(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net