A partial police shutdown over unpaid wages put Rio de Janeiro on edge on Friday, sparking fears of chaos similar to that seen in a neighbouring Brazilian state where police are in revolt and criminals have run amok.
Morale among street police is low as a result of nearly bankrupt Rio state’s inability to pay full wages, as well as brutal crime fighting that has seen more than 3,000 officers killed in Rio since 1994 – a casualty rate exceeding that of US troops in World War II, according to a recent study.
Police, who are classified as military, are barred by the constitution from going on strike or demonstrating.
To get around that law, female relatives of officers blocked the entrances to several Rio police bases, including the elite Shock Battalion – and personnel made no effort to come out.
“We’re demonstrating to demand police get their rights back, especially security, payment of salaries on time and better equipment, not weapons that are out of order and cars that are not maintained,” said a woman outside the 6th Battalion station.
The woman, who like other protesters requested that she not be identified, said her husband had been killed on duty last year.
“We’ve had enough!” said another police widow helping to blockade the station.
At the imposing Shock Battalion headquarters, women prevented cars and anyone in uniform from exiting.
“If you come in, we won’t let you leave,” one woman warned two thick-set police officers returning to base with rifles and other combat gear carried by Shock Battalion troopers.
They politely agreed.
Police authorities said in a statement that protests were taking place outside 27 of Rio’s 100 police stations, with five reported by Globo television as blockaded.
Spokesman Major Ivan Blaz told journalists that “95%” of officers were working as normal and that the state and city were secure.
Roberto Sa, security chief for Rio state, said on Friday night that the defence ministry had made troops available to step in if needed, adding that he hoped their intervention would not be necessary.
The limited blockades were modeled on a broader shutdown in the neighbouring Espirito Santo state, where relatives of police closed all stations one week ago, plunging the state into chaos (see accompanying report).
Despite the dispatch of federal army troops, more than 120 people have been reported killed amid looting and robbery.
President Michel Temer, who said nothing in public about the crisis all week, called the situation “unacceptable” on Friday and said that demonstrators “cannot hold the Brazilian people hostage”.
Espirito Santo police want a pay raise.
In Rio, the main demands are payment of 2016’s final salary and overtime, including for working extra during the Olympic Games in August.
But Rio is in dire financial straits and the corruption-plagued state is having to implement austerity measures to qualify for a federal bailout.
Messages widely shared on social media warned parents to keep their children out of school and to stay indoors.
Newspaper front pages were filled with headlines like “Rio’s Hell” and “Rio ungoverned”.
In a video appeal, police spokesman Blaz urged officers and their families not to follow the path of Espirito Santo.
“We cannot allow this scenario of barbarity to reach our houses,” he said.
Others took a lighter view of the possible absence of police, who for all their ferociousness against demonstrators and drug gangs, have been unable to stop a surge in muggings and other regular crime around Rio.
“Attention: Rio military police declare that policing continues normally and that muggings are occurring without problems,” went one joke making the rounds of social media.
Police officers wait as their relatives block the entrance to the military police station during a protest for better salaries and working conditions in Rio de Janeiro.