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Friday, February 10, 2012

Brazil police strike spreads to Rio before carnival

Brazil stood ready to deploy troops on the streets of Rio de Janeiro on Friday, as a strike by the state's police force threatened to disrupt upcoming carnival festivities and raised new questions about security before the 2014 World Cup.

The strike for higher wages began early on Friday and follows an ongoing walkout by police in the northeastern state of Bahia. There, police stopped work on Jan. 31, unleashing a crime wave with more than 150 homicides, looting, and vandalism mostly concentrated in the capital city of Salvador.

In Rio, the police job action is not expected to cause similar chaos because strike leaders agreed to a minimum level of service despite the protests.

So far, the intensity of the strike in Rio pales with the situation in Salvador, where some police officers allegedly committed some of the crimes themselves.

Still, the willingness of Brazil's police to walk out on the job when they are most needed has unsettled residents and called into question the overall state of preparedness in a country with increasing first-world ambitions.

The strike comes just one week before Rio's famous carnival celebrations and coincides with the start of hundreds of informal street parades, known as blocos. As many as 850,000 tourists are expected to hit the beaches and palm-tree lined promenades of Brazil's second-biggest city for the festivities, which officially start on Feb. 17 and end on Feb. 22.

The walkout renews concerns that Brazil, eager to show off its growing prosperity during the World Cup two years from now, is ill-equipped to provide the security needed in the 12 cities selected as venues for the soccer games, including Rio and Salvador. Rio will also play host to the 2016 Olympics.

As residents went about their business on Friday in the seaside city of 6.4 million people, only a handful of precincts appeared to struggle with a shortage of officers. Even so, authorities were ready with emergency plans that could deploy more than 14,000 federal troops across the city and the surrounding state of the same name.

President Dilma Rousseff last week sent more than 4,000 troops to Salvador to try to restore order. Given a call for walkouts nationwide by police officers demanding higher salaries, state and federal officials elsewhere prepared for similar measures.

"There is a contingency plan," said Colonel Frederico Caldas, a spokesman for the police force. "But it isn't necessary with the current situation."

 

EXTENT OF STRIKE UNCLEAR

As the strike moves forward, it is unclear how many of Rio's security personnel will walk off or how long their strike may last. Already, senior police officials have detained dozens of striking workers and charged them with disobedience.

Protest leaders said they hoped to reach an agreement with state officials soon.

"In no way do we want to ruin carnival," Sergeant Wallace Rodrigues, one of the organizers, said at a news conference. "We still have a week and are convinced that by then we can resolve this issue through dialogue."

Federal officials said they are also confident the carnival celebrations can go ahead. "I haven't the slightest doubt that carnival can proceed," said Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo. "The government is ready to send whatever troops may be needed."

In Bahia, roughly 6,000 officers, about a fifth of the state's overall police force, have taken part. Out of Rio's 70,000-strong force, which also includes firemen and state prison guards, only about 3,000 assembled in the city's colonial center late Thursday in an initial protest to launch the strike.

Though Rio's state assembly voted to raise the force's wages by 13 percent, with an additional increase next year, strikers are pushing for more.

State police, charged with day-to-day security in Brazil, earn far less than most private-sector workers and many civil servants, too. In Rio, the pay raise would give police a minimum monthly wage of 1,816 Brazilian reais ($1,055), about half what the police are demanding.

The low wages have forced many police officers to moonlight in other jobs and have caused frustration for officers in areas like Brazil's violent northeast, where rising crime and drug problems have accompanied economic growth. Low pay has also made many officers susceptible to bribes and collusion with armed gangs, drug traffickers and other criminals.

In Rio, where state officials have made inroads against gangs that controlled crime in the notorious hillside slums, authorities feared a strike could undermine the "police pacification units" that helped restore order.

However, police units appeared to be operating normally on Friday and city residents said they had noticed little out of the ordinary. One of the more famous carnival blocos, known as the Cordão do Bola Preta, reversed plans to cancel its parade and said its march would proceed, local media reported.

In Salvador, striking police remained defiant and Bahia police continued their walkout.

State officials in Bahia agreed to a pay raise for police, but negotiations have stalled over demands that any crimes committed by officers during the walkout be pardoned. Backing up the refusal by state officials to accept such a demand, President Rousseff said this week an amnesty would create "a country without rules."

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Tags:  brazil  rio  police  strike  carnival  





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