Brazilian Army troops locked down the northeast Brazilian city of Salvador on Sunday as an elite unit prepared to besiege the legislature and arrest armed police officers whose strike action has sent homicides spiraling.
A force of 3.500 members from army, navy and federal police was ordered to quell unrest in the state of Bahia after leading police officers went on strike on Wednesday demanding higher pay, a few days before the annual Carnaval.
Homicides have skyrocketed since the strike. State officials said 93 murders were reported over the past five days, more than twice the number for the same period last year. Assaults and store looting also increased.
“There are 40 men of an elite group that arrived to capture the strikers,” a state government source said, as soldiers patrolled key intersections in the city and kept watch over its popular beaches.
The head of the state legislature, Marcelo Nilo, urged the strikers to leave the building before midnight Sunday. The site “cannot be used as a refuge for those fleeing justice,” Nilo said.
Scores of armed policemen demanding an amnesty have been occupying part of the building since the strike began, said Bahia state government spokesman Robinson Almeida.
“The government knows that 99% of us are armed. If they try to evict us there will be a bloodbath,” an unidentified police officer told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.
One strike leader was arrested on Sunday on charges of “incitement to violence, forming gangs and theft of public property,” officials said. Arrest warrants were outstanding against 11 other leaders.
Bahia Governor Jaques Wagner has declared the strike illegal and asked for federal help. Brazil’s top army commander, General Enzo Martins, told reporters that 900 more soldiers were being deployed to Bahia to help provide additional security.
The strike and the spike in violence came just two weeks before millions of tourists were expected to arrive for Brazil’s premier tourist event, the Carnaval. Bahia, Brazil’s fourth most populous state with a population of 13.6 million is an important center for Carnaval celebrations.
Pedro Galvão, president of the Association of Travel Agencies of Bahia, told Brazil’s O Globo newspaper that 10% of tourists had already canceled their air and hotel reservations for the Carnaval.
Some 10,000 police officers, or one third of the Bahia police force, were on strike, demanding a 50% pay raise, better work conditions, and no retaliation, the state Public Safety Department said. The average wage for a state officer is about 867 dollars a month.
Though on Thursday a court declared the walkout “illegal” and ordered police to resume their work immediately, the strike continued with spokespersons for the police union announcing that it would not be called off until their demands were met.
The Brazilian government after ordering 2.600 soldiers from Army barracks in Salvador sent to other cities of Bahia, announced it was preparing another 4,000 if the situation gets worse.
Speaking Friday night on regional television, Bahia Governor Jaques Wagner attributed the crime wave to groups with ties to the police on strike.