Police officers in Brazil's Rio state went on strike Friday, raising fears for the security of the glittering Carnival extravaganza this month that sets this seaside city throbbing.
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 is also in the midst of preparations to host the 2014 World Cup soccer finals and the 2016 Olympics.
Salvador, Brazil's third-largest city, has already been hit by a crime wave since police walked off the job there last week.
Police were joined by Rio's firefighters and prison guards in voting to strike late Thursday, but it was not immediately clear how many of the 70,000 workers in those posts would comply with the call for strike.
The decision came just hours after the Rio state legislature gave police, prison guards and firefighters 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, though. 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.
Bulletproof vests, bullets
Besides better pay, officers want better working conditions, said union leader Helio Oliveira, who is a major in the Rio state police. He said police don't have adequate bullet-resistant vests, enough ammunition or modern guns.
"We want dignity at work," Oliveira said. "We do not intend to affront the government or harm society."
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 a significant proportion 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.
"It's not possible for those who receive money and arms from the people for protection to use those arms against them," Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo said.
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.
"We didn't want to strike," said Paulo Nascimento, a search and rescue firefighter.
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."
Although many Brazilians understand the plight of the police, whose wages are low compared with many private-sector workers, the chaos caused by the walkout has brought wide condemnation of the strike by government leaders and the general public.
Nevertheless, work stoppages of police are threatening to spread. The newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo has said officers in seven more of Brazil's 26 states as well as the federal district are considering strikes.
Despite being Brazil's second-wealthiest state, Rio has long paid its officers far less than the salaries earned by their colleagues in many parts of the country.
2 million drunken revelers
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.
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 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.