Yesterday, police in Rio de Janeiro voted to go on strike, demanding better pay. The move comes in the wake of a similar strike that erupted in the Northeastern state of Bahia, where police had occupied the state legislature in protest, demanding better wages before the 300 or so officers finally left the building yesterday (though their strike continues). Meanwhile, Cariocas (citizens of Rio de Janeiro) are worried, as Carnaval is set to begin next week. Additionally, other police forces throughout the country are considering joining their Bahian and Carioca brethren. With police striking, there are real worries that violence threatens Carnaval. These threats are not without basis, either, as the murder rate in Bahia more than doubled while the police strike. The fact that the police are striking in both Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, two of the most popular and important sites for the national cultural celebration, has many worried. Although authorities insist the festivities will continue as planned, the strike unquestionably has an impact, as people are already cancelling plans to travel to (and in) Brazil for the holiday, fearing more extreme violence as well as an increase in smaller crimes. Indeed, the strike affects Brazilians at even the most basic level, as it is the police who control traffic during the blocos that populate the streets of Rio and elsewhere. The strike has the potential to severely disrupt life during the most important cultural celebration in Brazil.
However, the police are absolutely justified in their strike. For years, the state and city governments responsible for police wages have underpaid their police forces, even while the cost of living in Brazil has gone up with the country’s economic successes. Compared to other public servants, the wages for police are inadequate, reflecting the broader gap between the rich and poor in Brazil, a gap that increased in the latter half of the twentieth century. As the New York Times article points out, the monthly income for most police who patrol the streets is $1100-1300 a month. That’s $13,200-$15,600 a year. By contrast, the average income for police and detectives in the United States is $51,410 a year (based on 2008 data). Thus, even while the cost of living between the two countries is increasingly similar, Brazilian police continue to make 1/3 less than their U.S. counterparts. Indeed, in comparison to the $80,000 a year some judges make, police continue to be woefully underpaid, to put it mildly. Yet state and municipal governments have failed to address the issues over the years, even as police made it clear their situation was worsening. At this point, striking before Carnaval is the most powerful tool left to police forces that have for too long been overlooked and underpaid by their governments.
The fact that police are underpaid in Brazil is not exactly a secret, either, and the low pay has had a direct impact on the violence of the drug wars in the favelas. Many police who have not been able to support themselves with their low pay have turned to paramilitary activity, forming militias that take over the drug trade from gangs they force out of the favelas. As a result, the drug wars have taken on an even more violent turn, as paramilitary police forces enter the fray with competing drug gangs, adding to the warfare that affects the lives of millions on a daily basis. This activity has also led to extrajudicial contract killings both for drug lords and against judges and officials who investigate this activity.
Thus, the police are absolutely justified in their actions. Improving police pay to live-able wages will improve Brazil in the short-term, as Carnaval can go off without a hitch; far more importantly, however, it will hopefully improve Brazil in the long-term, as police can have salaries that actually allow them to support themselves and their families in such a way that they do not have to turn to other, illegal methods to supplement their incomes. Failure to address these issues will not be the fault of the police. Rather, responsibility and blame should fall squarely on the municipal and state governments that have failed to financially protect the very people who are supposed to protect the government and civilians.