The capital of Brazil's Espirito Santo state has been in the grip of a brutal outbreak of violence, with 122 people dead after a week of killing and looting sparked by a police strike.
Police in the city of Vitoria have nominally been prevented from working by their own family members, mostly wives and children, who have made a show of blocking the entrances of police stations to stop cars and staff from leaving. They are angry that members of the state police have not received a pay raise or the inflation increase required by law, in seven years. Brazil's constitution forbids police from striking.
Alessandra Xavier, one of the protesting spouses, said they regret the loss of life and the sense of insecurity. "We feel sad, but we don't feel responsible or guilty," she said – instead blame lies with Governor Paulo Hartung, who would not negotiate salaries with the police and took no steps to protect people when protests began, she said.
"The Governor thought that he wasn't going to have to give us anything because we're just a small band of women without any knowledge or power," she said, adding that they are gratified to see their movement spread from one police station through the city and then the state.
Late Friday night, Brazilian media reported that the police and the government have reached an agreement and police will return to work on Saturday, but the government has not committed to raising compensation.
Meanwhile, there are fears that the tactic used in Esprito Santo could be taken up in other parts of Brazil – there were roiling rumours in Rio de Janeiro all week that police would strike Friday, and spouses blockaded a few stations. This city has far higher rates of violence than Vitoria on a good day, and is expecting to welcome 300,000 tourists for Carnival later this month. The state government is completely broke, months behind on paying police salaries and unable to fund even basic essential services such as gas for fire trucks or nurses for hospitals.
The state of Espirito Santo usually reports 3.2 murders a day; there have been 20 a day this week. Police stopped patrolling late on Feb. 3. Brazilians were horrified by broadcast images from city morgues that showed bodies stacked like firewood on the floor because there was no further storage space.
Most of the violence has been concentrated in poor areas of Vitoria that normally have elevated crime rates because they are controlled by or fought over by gangs and drug-traffickers. But there was also a rash of looting and car-jacking in middle-class neighbourhoods, and the city has been frozen all week, with schools and most businesses closed, public transportation shut down and nearly everyone staying inside. The economic loss so far is estimated at $126-million.
"We're still full of fear – my kids can't go to school, we're prisoners inside our house," said Jamily Bonatto, 39, a criminal lawyer. She didn't go to work all week, and her children, ages 6 and 16, have not left the house. "We're hostages."
The state government has been widely criticized for failing to call in help as soon as the de facto strike began. President Michel Temer sent armed forces and national guard members on Monday, and then more troops through the week, to a total of 3,500 by Friday. There was a return to normal activity in some neighbourhoods by Friday afternoon.
But the killings also continued, prompting many Brazilians to speculate about the social malaise that was unleashed so quickly when the police, who are not known for their efficacy at the best of times, stopped patrolling.
"We have an expression, A ocasiao faz o ladrao – the occasion creates the thief, basically," said Caio Nogueira Vargas, a 28-year-old teacher. "People are saying, 'If the police working is the only thing that keeps things together, then this society has failed.' I feel really disappointed with my fellow residents. It's not all of us, not even most of us, but there are a large number of people who are taking advantage of the situation to say, 'I might as well get an iPhone for myself.' "
He spent the week at home – the state school where he teaches isn't operating – but said he felt safe enough in his middle-class neighbourhood. It was both weird and instructive to see all businesses shuttered and the streets empty, he said.
"This is a country of discrepancies and what we're experiencing right now is what slums experience on a daily basis – it's just a regular day in the slums, when you have a curfew and some thug telling you where you are allowed to go," he said.
The police say their salaries are the lowest in the country and they have not received the inflation adjustment in seven years. Inflation was 11 per cent last year.
Mr. Temer addressed the crisis on Friday afternoon, a week after it began, saying in a statement that he condemned the "illegal" work stoppage that has "terrorized" the people of Espirito Santo. "The Brazilian people cannot be taken hostage by the rights" of others to make demands, he said.
Governor Hartung called the work stoppage "blackmail."
Cabo Noé da Matta, vice-president of the police union, said that the blockade was entirely the idea of the spouses and the police themselves were not forewarned. "The women are radicals," he said.
With a report from Elisangela Mendonca