Rio police strike exposes marred institution

February 10, 2012 - 4:55 PM
Brazil Police Strike

Police officers stand at their headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Feb. 10, 2012. Not content with legislative approval of a big pay raise, Rio state police officers went on strike Friday, raising fears for the security of the Carnival extravaganza that sets this seaside city throbbing. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A strike by Rio police a week ahead of Carnival celebrations is drawing attention to a deeply troubled force in which low wages help fuel corruption, extortion and lethal violence, experts said Friday.

Recent efforts by Rio de Janeiro state to increase wages and change police culture will help root out some of these long-standing problems, but the change won't happen suddenly, said Guaracy Mingardi, a crime and public safety expert and researcher at Brazil's top think tank Fundacao Getulio Vargas.

And this is worrying because part of Brazil's successful pitch to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 relied on its ability to keep the peace during the events.

"Authorities are now more concerned with the short-term problem of the effects the strike may have on Carnival and are not paying attention to the longer term problem these strikes could represent for the World Cup and Olympics," said Mingardi.

At the heart of the recent unrest among Brazil's police forces are low salaries. Rio's security forces decided to walk out on Friday to demand a pay raise, not content with a last-minute legislative approval of a 39 percent hike staggered over this year and the next.

"The main thing wrong with police forces in Rio, Bahia, and in the rest of the country is the poor wages paid," said Mingardi. "This is the driving force of the strikes and of the problems affecting the forces."

Carnival starts officially next Friday, but massive street parties that can draw up to 2 million people to the streets have already kicked off the merry maelstrom that consumes this city every summer. Rio's Carnival pumps more than $500 million into the city's economy annually.

The first day of the strike went calmly. Union leaders said 30 percent of units would remain active to take care of emergencies; adherence rates hovered between 50 and 70 percent for the roughly 60,000 police, firefighters and prison guards on strike.

The Defense Ministry said about 14,000 soldiers were ready to patrol the streets at the governor's request, but they have not been needed. Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo told reporters in Brasilia "so far, the situation is absolutely under the governor's control."

President Dilma Rousseff has offered help to the governors of Rio and Bahia, where most officers are returning to work after an 11-day strike during which the capital city's murder rate doubled.

Dissatisfaction among officers and firefighters in Rio has been brewing for months.

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.

Thursday's wage offer is significant, but is half of what the officers sought and didn't do enough to bring up salaries that have lagged behind rising prices for decades, they said.

Luis Henrique Nunes, who has been a Rio police officer for 29 years, said a larger reform in the force would be welcome, but what really fueled the anger of the thousands rallying Thursday night was their low wages.

"Really, we're here for a dignified wage," he said. "With what we earn, we can't even afford a decent house, in an area with basic sanitation. That's wrong."

The state's head of public security, Jose Mariano Beltrame, has often said Rio's biggest public security challenges are the drug cartels and their decades-long occupation of shantytowns, and lawlessness within police ranks.

The most insidious manifestations of police misconduct are militias — paramilitary criminal organizations made of former or active-duty officers that dominate low-income areas, extort residents, and often double as extermination squads, according to legislative and judicial investigations.

Research shows they now control nearly half of Rio's approximately 1,000 slums.

A plan to take back territory dominated by the cartels has increased safety and social services in selected areas, improving the lives of the 14 percent of the state's slums residents who benefited from the program.

Rooting out malfeasance buried deep within the force is harder, Beltrame has often said, most recently in a January interview with the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.

"You can catch the trafficker with material proof," he said. "Militias involve misconduct within the force; no one wants to be a witness against them. People can be identified, but it's difficult to get proof."

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

Rio state police also die on the job. In 2010, 19 police officers were killed while working. Another 31 were killed in 2009, the latest police data show. By comparison, Florida, which has a larger population than Rio, 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.

As part of the effort to improve morale and fight the corrupting power of drug and extortion money, public security chief Beltrame has pushed for improving salaries and hiring new officers, the public security department said in a statement.

Without giving details of how many new officers were hired, the department said personnel expenses with the military police went from $530 million in 2006 to $1.3 billion budgeted for 2012.

While the current base pay for police starts at $964 per month in Rio state, it can go to $1,169 for a starting officer willing to participate in available training courses, the department said.

Still, Beltrame recognizes the wages are very low. As Brazil's economy boomed in recent years, so did the cost of living. Rio de Janeiro now ranks among the most expensive cities in the Western Hemisphere.

"If readjustment had been done systematically along the years, the police officers' salaries wouldn't have fallen so far behind," he said in an e-mailed statement this week. "If this had been done earlier, we wouldn't have this problem now."

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Associated Press writer Stan Lehman contributed to this report from Sao Paulo.