In a tragic development one would expect to see play out in its economically devastated northern neighbor, Venezuela, more than 100 people have been reported killed in violence and looting during a six-day strike by police in the Brazilian state of Espirito Santo, resulting in public chaos and anarchy, with schools and businesses closed and public transportation frozen.
In a scene out of a MadMax prequel, the Brazilian army mobilized airborne troops and armored vehicles on Thursday to reinforce the roughly 1,200 soldiers and federal police trying to contain the chaos in the coastal state north of Rio de Janeiro. Most of the violence was centered in the state capital Vitoria, a wealthy port city ringed by golden beaches and filled with mining and petroleum companies.
With the country's economy continuing to crater as a result of record unemployment, soaring inflation, leading to a record high murder rate in the tourism capital Rio, police in Espirito Santo are demanding a pay rise amid an economic downturn that has hammered public finances in Brazil, with many states struggling to ensure even basic health, education and security services.
As a Reuters report recounts, soldiers patrolled abandoned streets in downtown Vitoria, stopping and frisking the occasional pedestrian against shuttered store fronts. State officials said they needed hundreds more federal troops and members of an elite federal police force to help establish order and make up for the absence of some 1,800 state police who normally patrol Vitoria's metropolitan area.
Meanwhile, the army said what it always says when it intervenes in a domestic disturbance: it's only temporary. "The Army's involvement in Espirito Santo is temporary. It is here to make government negotiations possible and bring peace to the population. We are not going to replace the police," General Eduardo Villas Boas said on Twitter.
According to Reuters, the state government has not released an official number for killings since police started striking on Saturday for better pay, but a spokeswoman for the union representing police said it had registered 101 homicides. That would be more than six times the state's average homicide rate during the same period last year. The Globo TV network, citing security officials, reported that 200 cars were stolen in Vitoria on a single day, ten times the daily average for the whole state. The state's retail association said businesses have lost 90 million reais ($28.87 million) since police walked off the job.
Echoing the post-apocalyptic scenes in Venezuela, where stores in the Brazilian state did open their doors, they were swarmed by shoppers stocking up as if preparing for a natural disaster.
"Good thing the supermarket opened because I have two young children at home and the food is running out," said salesman Vitor Paulo, weighted down with shopping bags. "It's like we're hostages in our own homes. We're scared to go out."
Representatives of the striking police, including some of the officers' wives, met with state officials on Wednesday to demand that salaries be doubled for every category of officer.
The union said they have not received a raise in four years. Monthly pay for an officer starts at 2,643 reais ($848), according to Corporal Thiago Bicalho, a spokesman for striking police. "We are going to analyze the offer and see what we can do in reality to advance this situation," said Julio Pompeu, director of the state's human rights secretariat, who is helping the government negotiate with police.
There is hope that normalcy will return: the two sides are scheduled to meet again on Thursday.