Police strike in Rio, raising fears for Carnival

February 10, 2012 - 1:15 PM
APTIOPIX Brazil Police Strike

Brazilian police, firefighters and prison guards protest during a rally in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday Feb. 9, 2012. Police are threatening a strike that could prompt violence during this tropical city's popular Carnival bash in spite of government approval Thursday of a staggered, 39 percent raise. But the group's union leader said officers' salaries have been devaluing for decades, and 56,000 officers and guards are willing to walk out in protest if their demands are not addressed. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The streets of this Olympic city were calm Friday, just hours after police officers went on strike and a week before glittering Carnival celebrations that typically draw 800,000 tourists were due to start.

Authorities said 14,000 army soldiers stood at the ready to patrol Rio's streets, but as yet their patrols were not needed. How the city handles the crisis this week could have international repercussions, as Rio prepares to host the championship matches of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

"The situation is normal, we've been monitoring all the units all morning," police spokesman Frederico Caldas told the Globo TV network.

Caldas said as yet there were no major problems or clashes with the striking police and that "we will not accept any sort of action against discipline."

It wasn't immediate clear how many of the 58,000 police and firefighters in Rio were adhering to the strike. Union officials expected anywhere from 50 percent to 70 percent to join the strike.

The officers decided during a midnight rally to start the work stoppage, not content with legislative approval of a 39 percent raise to be staggered over this year and the next, along with a promise of more in 2014.

The increase was just half of what officers sought. They said their salaries have fallen far behind rising prices over the decades, and called their vote to strike a protest against an insufficient raise.

"We didn't want to strike," said Paulo Nascimento, a search and rescue firefighter. "We're putting this on Gov. Sergio Cabral's conscience."

The decision to strike was made by thousands of officers and firefighters who massed in downtown Rio for a six-hour assembly that included fireworks, chants and speeches denouncing Rio's government.

Some longtime officers were proud of bringing together Rio's security forces in a joint strike for the first time.

"I feel like a citizen," said Joao Morais da Silva, a retired police officer who was shot on the job, losing an eye and damaging his shoulder. "I feel like we're standing here asking for what's our right."

Current base pay for police starts at $964 in Rio state, which despite being Brazil's second-wealthiest state has long paid its officers far less than the salaries earned by their colleagues in many parts of the country.

Rio state police suffer high fatality rates as they battle powerful drug gangs and street crime. In 2010, 19 police officers were killed on the job, and 31 were killed in 2009, the latest police data show. By comparison, Florida, which has a larger population than Rio state, led the U.S. in peace officer fatalities last year at 14 killed, according to preliminary data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

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

Police already were on strike in Salvador, Brazil's third largest city, and the 10-day-old walkout has brought 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.

Work stoppages of police are also threatening to spread to seven more of Brazil's 26 states as well as the federal district are considering strikes.

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. Cabral had urged officers to stay on the job, appealing to 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 Rio state.

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.

Rio's police are among the lowest paid in Brazil, and as Brazil's economy has boomed in recent years, so has the cost of living. Rio de Janeiro now ranks among the most expensive cities in the Western Hemisphere.

Police in Brazil, and in Rio in particular, have deep problems with corruption. Many officers say their low pay makes it difficult to root out bribery and other illegal revenue.

In addition, officers are often accused of participating in paramilitary militias. In Rio alone, such bands control nearly half of the city's 1,000 slums and extort money from the population in various schemes.

The United Nations has blamed police for many of the nation's nearly 50,000 homicides each year. An Associated Press analysis of data released by the police found officers in Rio killed an average of 3.5 people a day over the last five years.