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115 dead in a week: Criminals go on rampage as Brazil police strike

A toll of 115 murders and widespread looting, assaults and vandalism in the past week are roiling Brazil's third-biggest city, casting doubts over upcoming carnival celebrations.
Image: Brazilian soldiers patrol the streets of Salvador,
Brazilian soldiers patrol the streets of Salvador, Bahia, as part of security operations following a strike by state military police members on Tuesday.Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

A toll of 115 murders and widespread looting, assaults and vandalism in the past week are roiling Brazil's third-biggest city, casting doubts over upcoming carnival celebrations and raising questions about security ahead of the soccer World Cup in 2014.

More than 3,000 federal troops were dispatched to the northeastern state of Bahia in recent days to restore order after much of the state's military police force went on strike last Tuesday to demand higher wages.

The military police force, normally charged with routine order and security in Brazil, has stood by as criminals — some of them allegedly members of the police force themselves — have run rampant.

About 20 percent of the state's police, or about 6,000 officers, have taken part in the strike, the government said.

The city of Salvador, the state capital known as a locus of Afro-Brazilian culture and popular as a foreign tourist destination, has borne the brunt of the spree of violence.

Less than two weeks before the start of Salvador's popular carnival celebration, which regularly draws a half-million visitors to its seaside colonial streets, the chaos is prompting residents to stay home while shopkeepers to shutter their doors and would-be visitors to cancel their plans.

Brazil's recent economic boom has brought growing prosperity to Bahia and much of the rest of the country's historically poor northeast, but the strike and its fallout underscore what many Brazilians say remains a fragile state of preparedness in public services and institutions.

The fragility, analysts say, manifests itself anytime a contingency tests reflexes for everything from natural disasters to transport strikes to organized crime waves.

"There's a contrast here between rapid economic growth and a sluggish ability for many public institutions to evolve," said Claudio Couto, a professor of public administration at the Fundacao Getúlio Vargas, a business school in Sao Paulo. "The government isn't able to keep up and that shows in its overall preparedness."

The issue of preparedness is critical in places like Salvador, one of 12 Brazilian cities chosen as a venue for soccer's World Cup, just two years away. The tournament, along with the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, is highly anticipated in Brazil as a chance for the country to showcase its recent progress on the global stage.

Economic progress, skyrocketing crime
In Salvador and the rest of Brazil's northeast, the economic progress has brought an unwelcome consequence: skyrocketing crime. Fueled by a growing drug trade, an inflow of poor migrants and still lingering inequality between the region's haves and have-nots, northeastern cities regularly rank among the most violent in Brazil.

"The management of public security there is a failure," Jose Vicente da Silva, a retired police colonel and former national security secretary, said in a televised interview on Tuesday.

For Bahia Governor Jaques Wagner, a star of Brazil's ruling Workers' Party and a key ally of President Dilma Rousseff, the strike has led to marathon negotiations with the striking police, who say they are underpaid and overburdened by the rising crime.

The governor already agreed to a 6.5 percent salary increase for the police but has refused to grant an amnesty for striking workers who have committed crimes.

"The right to protest is guaranteed but not the right to offend, to prey on, or to threaten people," the governor told Brazilian television on Tuesday.

For the people of Bahia, the past week's tumult has created a general sense of unease.

The 115 homicides reported by state authorities by early Tuesday far exceed the state's already high numbers for a weeklong period, the government said, without providing comparable data.

While the arrival of federal troops helped allay the initial alarm, security experts have criticized the measure, calling soldiers, trained for military exercises, poor substitutes for everyday police officers.

'Feeling of insecurity'
And because many of the troops have been dispatched to the focus of the protests, a state assembly house where striking police have sought refuge, citizens say they still feel unprotected.

"There's a feeling of insecurity," said Andre Mariano, a college student who was picking up friends at the Salvador airport Tuesday morning. "You don't see officials out on the street — neither police nor soldiers."

Travel businesses, meanwhile, are bracing for the strike's impact during what should be a peak time for revenues.

Already, local tourism officials have said as many as 10 percent of their unpaid reservations for carnival and beyond have been canceled in recent days.

"It's going to be much worse if this doesn't get resolved," said Pedro Galvao, president of the Bahia chapter of the Brazilian Association of Travel Agents. "People don't travel to places where they will be scared."

Late last week, the U.S. Embassy in Brazil advised Americans to "consider delaying any non-essential travel" to Bahia "until the security conditions have stabilized."

Additional reporting by Esteban Israel and Paulo Prada in São Paulo; writing by Paulo Prada.