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Police strike in Rio, bringing fears for Carnival

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Brazilian police, firefighters and prison guards protest during a rally in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012. Police are threatening a strike that could prompt violence during this tropical city's popular Carnival bash in spite of government approval Thursday of a staggered, 39 percent raise. But the group's union leader said officers' salaries have been devaluing for decades, and 56,000 officers and guards are willing to walk out in protest if their demands are not addressed. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

RIO DE JANEIRO >>  Not content with legislative approval of a big pay raise, Rio state police officers went on strike Friday, raising fears for the security of the glittering Carnival extravaganza that sets this seaside city throbbing.

The work stoppage will force authorities to deploy thousands of soldiers into the streets to provide security in this city of 6 million people that is also in the midst of preparations to host the 2014 World Cup finals and the 2016 Olympics.

Officers approved the strike at a raucous outdoor rally Thursday night, just hours after the Rio state legislature gave police, prison guards and firefighters a 39 percent raise to be staggered over this year and the next, along with a promise of more in 2014.

The increase was just half of what officers sought, though. They said their salaries have fallen far behind rising prices over the decades, and called their vote to strike a protest against an insufficient raise.

"We didn’t want to strike," said Paulo Nascimento, a search and rescue firefighter. "We’re putting this on Gov. Sergio Cabral’s conscience."

The decision to strike was made by thousands of officers and firefighters who massed in downtown Rio for a six-hour assembly that included fireworks, chants and speeches denouncing Rio’s government.

Some longtime officers were proud of bringing together Rio’s security forces in a joint strike for the first time.

"I feel like a citizen," said Joao Morais da Silva, a retired police officer who was shot on the job, losing an eye and damaging his shoulder. "I feel like we’re standing here asking for what’s our right."

Current base pay for police starts at $964 in Rio state, which despite being Brazil’s second-wealthiest state has long paid its officers far less than the salaries earned by their colleagues in many parts of the country.

A walkout by security forces could be disastrous for Brazil’s Carnival celebration, the world’s largest. It draws about 800,000 tourists every year and is slated to begin Feb. 17.

Police already were on strike in Salvador, Brazil’s third largest city, and the 10-day-old walkout has brought a spike in violence and homicides. That city’s Carnival is Brazil’s second largest, and while officials vow it will go on, many visitors have canceled their trips to the city.

Work stoppages of police are also threatening to spread. The newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo has said officers in seven more of Brazil’s 26 states as well as the federal district are considering strikes.

Rio’s festivities pump more than $500 million into the city’s economy annually, and some street parades can attract nearly 2 million drunken revelers at a time.

Rio Gov. Sergio Cabral had urged officers to stay on the job, appealing to their sense of duty and responsibility.

"You cannot have a strike in essential services like public safety," Cabral said at a news conference. "Rio de Janeiro doesn’t deserve this."

Sergio Simoes, head of Rio’s Civil Defense department, said the army was prepared to free up 14,000 soldiers to patrol Rio state.

Dissatisfaction among officers and firefighters in Rio has been brewing for months, with protest marches growing. Last month, 20,000 officers marched along Copacabana beach demanding a wage increase, fewer hours on the job and a bonus for difficult working conditions.

Rio’s police are among the lowest paid in Brazil, and as Brazil’s economy has boomed in recent years, so has the cost of living. Rio de Janeiro now ranks among the most expensive cities in the Western Hemisphere.

Police in Brazil, and in Rio in particular, have deep problems with corruption. Many officers say their low pay makes it difficult to root out bribery and other illegal revenue.

In addition, officers are often accused of participating in paramilitary militias. In Rio alone, such bands control nearly half of the city’s 1,000 slums and extort money from the population in various schemes.

The United Nations has blamed police for a significant proportion of the nation’s nearly 50,000 homicides each year. An Associated Press analysis of data released by the police found officers in Rio killed an average of 3.5 people a day over the last five years.

Rio’s head of state security, Jose Mariano Beltrame, said earlier this week that previous governments let police salaries lag, but he argued that state officials were doing their best with the pay raise offered.

He also guaranteed Rio would remain safe.

"The public safety department has a public commitment to maintain peace and safety," he said. "The path to solving these problems is one of order, decency, dialogue and understanding."

Besides better pay, officers want better working conditions, said union leader Helio Oliveira, who is a major in the Rio state police. He said police don’t have adequate bullet-resistant vests, enough ammunition or modern guns.

"We want dignity at work," Oliveira said. "We do not intend to affront the government or harm society."


Associated Press writer Jenny Barchfield in Salvador contributed to this report.


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