Fear in Bahia, Brazil, Is Emptying ATM Machines and Supermarket Shelves

Salvador, Bahia Sunday, February 5, 2012. 7.30 am. A side road in a residential area of a city of Bahia state, in northeastern Brazil. “I am gonna kill you viado (queer),” shouts a poor guy in front of my window. I open it. And I watch the confrontation.

One of the guys, a strong brawny man, throws stones at the small poor guy shouting he is going to kill him. The fight is getting hotter. Other doors and windows open to watch the show. Stones fly through the air. Eventually the muscled guy leaves while the skinny one keeps on shouting at him.

What’s wrong with this picture? In normal times, a poor guy would never confront a richer guy. The police would come and probably arrest the poor one and you’d never know what happened to him. Not any  more. Not in Bahia these days.

The civil war going on in Bahia has already left more than 80 dead bodies in the streets of the state capital Salvador, since the 31st of January.

The atmosphere is very tense. And even I am in trouble since I have no cash. I have some cash in the bank in my Brazilian account but I cannot take it out. If I go to an ATM machine I risk my life.

No police in the streets is an invitation to be robbed. I am surviving with my debit card, but not everybody accepts it. Besides, many ATM machines are not working. All the money has been taken out and they have not been refilled.

Yesterday I went to the supermarket. Saturday mornings they are always empty. Not yesterday. The market was full. Lots of people were buying food and everything else. My favorite mineral water was already out of stock. Once I bought another one and got a severe intoxication.

What the hell is happening? People are fearful. They buy food early in the day because they do not want to go in the streets later on, when the assaults are more likely.

The streets are filled with trash. The sanitation company is not collecting trash at night any more. No explanation, but many rumors. Some say the employees fear for their lives and don’t want to work at night. I heard in the radio that tomorrow, Monday, schools in Salvador will remain shut because they can’t offer security to the students.

The city is effectively paralyzed. Some people might think I am exaggerating the fears. Maybe.  But something is different. A noisy corner I usually pass on Sunday, a place normally filled with rowdy, disrespectful people who blast their loud speakers all day Sunday was quiet today.

There is silence, finally. Maybe the riot of the poor people is scaring even those who usually treat them like dogs. Yes, because now there is no protection for anybody.

There are many small battles inside the big war between the policemen on strike and the Government of Bahia. But they all have something in common: everyone in the middle of it risks seriously his or her life. I’m not exaggerating. A large stone almost hit me this morning while I was at the window watching the fight between the two men.

When will all this confrontation end?  Some cynics say not before the powerful of Salvador chime in. They are starting to do that now. Salvador’s trade association estimates the losses caused by the strike due to lost salaries, looting and assaults amount to 200 million reais (US$ 116 million).

Renowned singer Ivete Sangalo told reporters she feels very bad for what is happening to her Salvador. Carnaval is coming and big money too, but many people will stay away if the city cannot guarantee security for the revelers.

Singers will be among the biggest losers. They are already losing money canceling their shows in Bahia because of the lack of security.

In the meantime, I am running out of cash like many people in Bahia. Stores are empty. What are we supposed to do these days? I turn the question to Mr. Jaques Wagner, governor of Bahia.

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

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