Brazil: Bahia Is in State of Siege with Police on Strike and Criminals Roaming Streets

Military police on strike in Bahia Shopping Iguatemi, the most popular shopping center in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. 3rd floor in front of Mc Donald’s. I close my laptop while my two small children start fighting each other as usual. I tell them to stop. Finally they do. I put my laptop in the case. All at a sudden my wife starts shouting. “Let’s run, get a kid and run, now”.

For a second I don’t understand what’s happening. I turn myself around and then I can the commotion. A wave of people running, shouting, the terror in their eyes while they come in our direction knocking down everything in front of them: tables, chairs, advertising signs. The throng is out of control: they are hundreds creating a human tsunami that destroys everything in its path.

I grab my little kid and run with him in my arms just to the bottom end of McDonalds. The wave slowly stops while people still seem to be panicky. I hide my family behind an advertising panel. And then people apparently terrified start asking the same question: What’s happening?

Welcome to the arrastão (dragnet), a hellish Brazilian experience which has become a common occurrence in Bahia. A group of criminals, from a couple to dozens of them, hiding their faces with masks start running in any public place like a beach or a shopping center. In their race they steal purses and whatever they can get, pushing everybody and creating a tsunami of panic that can do more damage than the arrastão itself.

The arrastão described here happened while the local military police is on strike asking for better salaries in a very tough confrontation with the Government of Bahia. The situation is so serious that the Legislative Assembly has been under siege for a few days now by the striking policemen.

The government of Bahia, on the other hand, has asked the Federal government to send federal troops to help contain the situation.

In the interior of the state the situation is even worse. In the city of Feira de Santana, for example, the situation is so bad that the bus drivers went on strike fearing for their life. In Itabuna businesses close their doors afraid they might be assaulted.

It’s a climate of civil war. Thursday three other shopping areas were invaded by mob in the neighborhoods of Caixa d’Água, Liberdade and Comércio, all in Salvador, which is the capital of Bahia. Shops closed earlier throughout the city.

Since the government of Bahia has decided not to negotiate with the  strikers some of them took over buses that were place in middle of main roads of Salvador, stopping the traffic. 

Criminals in need of replenishing their weapons arsenal threatened this Friday to invade the police station in Liberdade.

The situation is very tense just a few days before the Carnaval of Bahia, one of the most famous in the world. Forecasts are that  Carnaval this year will be very hot but not for the weather.

It’s ironic that a few weeks ago I sent a request to the Cabinet of Bahia’s Governor of Bahia for an interview about the security of the state after reports the violence in Bahia is bigger than in Rio de Janeiro.

I got no reply. Foreign reporters don’t get much attention in Bahia despite the fact that the governor Jaques Wagner is a very friendly guy. His aides, however, don’t seem to care for the press.

Bahia is always a wonderful land with the best Carnaval in the world. No doubt about that. However a change is needed in the approach to this police strike because the politics of confrontation is making things dangerously worse for the population and the tourists.

Max Bono is an investigative journalist traveling in Brazil. You can contact him at researchinrio@yahoo.com.

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