The now fivefold increase in the numbers of killings in various towns and cities in the north of Brazil has coincided with a strike by police and firefighters in support of pay increases after a six-year pay freeze.
The Federal Government has sent more than 2500 troops as reinforcements and hundreds of police officers have been dismissed for taking part in demonstrations in support of improved financial terms.
Hundreds of masked police officers tightened security in the north-east of Brazil during Carnival festivities, which had to be cancelled. Officers are trying to stop their colleagues from patrolling the streets and are making it difficult for them to move around by booby-trapping the wheels of their vehicles to puncture the tyres.
The decrease in police numbers has been matched by an increase in the number of killings, especially in the state of Cearà. Although the average number of killings was already high with six violent deaths per day so far in 2020, the official figure has increased fivefold with 150 killings last week, according to the Secretariat for Public Security and Community Defence.
Tension on the streets has reached the point where a senator from the left-wing Democratic Labour Party opposed to the police protests, Cid Gomes, suffered gunshot wounds when he tried to use a digger to gain entry to a police station that had been occupied by striking police officers in the city of Sobral.
The response of the Federal Government under President Jair Bolsonaro has been to send 2,500 troops to Cearà to retake the streets. In addition, authorities have dismissed more than 200 officers and have arrested some 40 on charges of desertion.
The protests started in December 2019. Police and firefighters in the state of Cearà demonstrated in front of the Legislative Assembly in the state capital Fortalesa demanding higher wages. Their unhappiness stems from the fact that they have not had any wage increases over the last six years, missing out on being paid salaries nearly 27% higher.
The Secretariat for Public Security and Community Defence in Cearà has explained that there was an investment of 600 million reals – more than $136 million – in security in the period 2015-2018. But the money was not spent on what the police were demanding but on taking on 10,000 more police and training 15,000 soldiers.
At the beginning of February, the government of Cearà agreed to increase pay for police and firefighters in stages to raise their current 3,200 real pay to 4,500. Expressed in dollars, their pay would go up from $750 to $1,025. But the pay increase would be introduced gradually over the period to 2022.
Police and firefighters are not satisfied and have called street demonstrations to express their unhappiness. But since the Brazilian constitution bars the forces of law and order from striking, the protests have been declared illegal by the courts.
That decision has had the opposite effect to the one intended and the police and firefighters have gone on all-out strike. The strike has still not come to an end despite outbreaks of violence and political and judicial pressure.