BRASILIA — The boardwalk along the beach in Vila Velha, a coastal town in northeastern Brazil, is normally swarming with tourists. But in early February it was deserted save for a few soldiers who marched down the road, guns held ready.
Shots punctured the eerie silence as thieves held up pedestrians for their cars and purses, local media reported. In commercial centers throughout the area, packs of looters drove trucks into shop windows and carried whole racks of clothes and appliances on their backs.
This wave of near-anarchy has engulfed the state of Espirito Santo, a picturesque region along Brazil’s northeastern coast, since Feb. 4. That’s when the state police announced a general strike, leaving the streets open to gangs and petty criminals alike. The state government said that 143 people were slain in Espirito Santo between Feb. 4 and Feb. 13, compared to just four people in all of January.
This crime wave is another symptom of Brazil’s growing budget crisis. From hospitals to universities, governments in Brazil are being squeezed by a prolonged recession and strict austerity measures, resulting in a breakdown of social services in various corners of the country.
In January, rival drug gangs orchestrated prison revolts that killed hundreds and resulted in mass escapes. In Rio de Janeiro, funding cuts left some hospitals without enough money for bandages. Rio’s state government went months without paying public workers’ salaries.
Critics say the police strike in Espirito Santo is another example of the government’s loose grip on control. Espirito Santo has long been one of Brazil’s most crime-ridden states. There were 1,000 killings there last year, yet overworked police officers make a starting salary of just $600 a month, among the lowest in the country, according to the state police officers’ union.
Because they provide an essential service, state police are legally forbidden to go on strike in Brazil. But the officers in Espirito Santo found a loophole: They would show up at the station every morning in uniform, ready to work. But once they were inside, their spouses and family members surrounded the headquarters and refused to let them patrol the streets, demanding higher payment and better working conditions. Two days after the start of the strike, the federal government ordered the police to bypass their families and return to the streets — but the officers refused.
“We are living a crisis of legitimacy in Brazil,” said Marco Borges, a sociologist and expert on violence in the region. “It is a very grave situation. An institution linked to the army, with military training, simply decided to disobey the orders of its commanders.”
The results were disastrous. Within two days, 50 people were slain, schools and health clinics closed, commerce evaporated and the state’s transportation system came to a halt. Residents, who had no warning about the strike, became hostages in their own homes, forced to survive on whatever food they had in their cabinets.
Geraldo Pereira Acuncão, a 47-year-old electrician in central Espirito Santo, began rationing food among his five children. After five days locked inside his home, he ventured out to find supplies and instructed his family to hand over all their possessions if an intruder broke in.
“The thieves are armed and the people are not,” he said. “There are no police to protect us, so we have no way to defend ourselves, even in our own homes.”
President Michel Temer deployed 3,000 soldiers and sailors to patrol the streets; residents cheered from their windows as war tanks rolled past on the empty roads. By Feb. 11, when police signed a deal with the government to consider an increase in salaries, officers were airlifted out of their headquarters to bypass the still-demonstrating family members. Still, 10 days after the agreement, nearly 30 percent of officers in Espirito Santo had yet to return to work, according to the federal government.
The damage from the police strike goes far beyond the violence inflicted in Espirito Santo. The strike cost the state $100 million in lost revenue, according to the Espirito Santo commercial federation. That figure does not include damage to property or looting, which impacted an estimated 300 shops. The financial toll could rise even further in the coming weeks: The strike occurred at a peak vacation season in the region and decimated tourism, one of the region’s largest sources of income.
Last week, after police in Rio threatened a similar strike during the country’s biggest celebration, Carnaval, the federal government announced that it would expand its deployment of troops. Now, in addition to the traditional floats and bands, 9,000 armed soldiers are parading the streets of Rio during the festival.