Rio De Janeio Police Strike A Danger For Carnival

Published February 10, 2012 3:00AM (EST)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rio state police officers voted at a rally Thursday night to begin a strike that could prompt violence during the globe's biggest Carnival bash in spite of government approval of a pay raise earlier in the day.

The work stoppage will force authorities to deploy thousands of soldiers into the streets to provide security in this city of 6 million people that will host the 2014 World Cup finals and the 2016 Olympics.

A measure approved Thursday by Rio's legislature gave police, prison guards and firefighters a 39 percent raise staggered over this year and the next, along with a promise of more in 2014. But the increase is just half of what officers sought.

Union leader Helio Oliveira, a major with Rio state police, said officers' salaries have been devaluing for decades, and 56,000 officers and guards decided to walk out in protest of what they said was an insufficient raise.

"What was approved today does not meet our demands," he told The Associated Press by telephone before the strike vote. "It's half of what we want, and won't be given all at once. We want a new proposal, with a salary offer that is enough to meet our needs."

Current base pay for police starts at $964 in Rio state, which has long paid its officers far less than the salaries given by many other Brazilian states to their police forces.

A walkout by security forces could be disastrous for Brazil's Carnival, the world's largest, which draws about 800,000 tourists and is slated to begin Feb. 17.

In Salvador, Brazil's third largest city, a 10-day-old walkout by police has produced a spike in violence and homicides. That city's Carnival is Brazil's second largest, and while officials vow it will go on, many visitors have canceled their trips to the city.

Police The work stoppages are also threatening to spread elsewhere in Brazil. The newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo reported officers in seven of Brazil's 26 states as well as the federal district are considering their own strikes: Roraima, Mato Grosso, Tocantins, Goias, Espirito Santo, Parana and Rio Grande do Sul.

Rio's festivities pump more than $500 million into the city's economy annually, and some street parades can attract nearly 2 million drunken revelers at a time.

Rio Gov. Sergio Cabral had urged officers to obey their sense of duty and responsibility.

"You cannot have a strike in essential services like public safety," Cabral said at a news conference. "Rio de Janeiro doesn't deserve this."

Sergio Simoes, head of Rio's Civil Defense department, said the army was prepared to free up 14,000 soldiers to patrol the streets of Rio state if police went on strike.

Rio's police are among the lowest paid in the nation even though they patrol its best-known city and tourist hub.

Rio's head of state security, Jose Mariano Beltrame, said earlier this week that he recognized previous governments let police salaries lag but argued that state officials were doing their best with the pay raise offered.

He also guaranteed Rio would remain safe.

"The public safety department has a public commitment to maintain peace and safety," he said. "The path to solving these problems is one of order, decency, dialogue and understanding."

Rio's legislature, where the wage increase was approved, was working under reinforced security, surrounded by a fence and guarded by riot police.

In addition to better pay, officers want better working conditions, Oliveira said. He said police don't have adequate bullet-resistant vests, enough ammunition or modern guns.

Their conduct rules date back to Brazil's military dictatorship, and allow an officer to be thrown behind bars for administrative or disciplinary infractions as simple as being late, Oliveira added.

"We want dignity at work," he said. "We do not intend to affront the government or harm society."

Dissatisfaction among officers and firefighters in Rio has been brewing for months, with protest marches growing. Last month, 20,000 officers marched along Copacabana beach demanding a wage increase, fewer hours on the job, and a bonus for difficult working conditions.

Meanwhile, striking police officers in the northeastern city of Salvador evacuated the state legislative building they had occupied in protest for more than a week. About 245 strikers filed out of the building early Thursday to cheers from supporters and family who had camped outside for days.

Army spokesman Marcio Cunha said the legislature building appeared to be "dirty but in OK conditions." He declined to say whether arms had been found in the building or on those leaving it.

Officers on strike in Bahia decided at an assembly convened after the end of the standoff to continue the work stoppage, expecting a new proposal from the government.

Murder rates more than doubled since the strike started in Salvador last Tuesday. The murders, as well as a rash of shop lootings and holdups, have scared tourists away from Salvador in the run-up to the city's iconic Carnival festivities. State authorities have been under intense pressure to resolve the strike.

The head of the Bahia state police union, Marco Prisco, and another top leader were detained and taken to a military facility, said Cunha.

The fate of Prisco and other leaders was a major sticking point in the negotiations. Arrest warrants have been issued against 12 of the leaders on charges of organizing roaming bands to stir up panic in the city and of robbing police cars.

Seven remained at large following Thursday's arrests.

Bahia Gov. Jaques Wagner has alleged that the strikers were partly responsible for the wave of violence in a bid to strike fear into the public.

Recordings of what were purported to be Prisco's phone conversations suggested the strike leader incited his followers to commit acts of vandalism. Bahia's public security authority made the recordings, which were broadcast on television late Wednesday.

The strikers in Salvador have narrowed their demands to amnesty for the walkout and payment of bonuses that would add about $350 a month to officers' paychecks. Monthly salaries for officers in Bahia now range between $1,100 and $1,330, depending on rank and experience.

The state government has offered a raise of 6.5 percent as well as bonuses but refused to offer amnesty for the striking officers.


Associated Press writer Juliana Barbassa reported this story in Rio de Janeiro and Jenny Barchfield from Salvador.

By Salon Staff

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