Police end Rio de Janeiro strike ahead of carnival

RIO DE JANEIRO Tue Feb 14, 2012 11:45am EST

Revellers attend a samba parade during pre-carnival festivities in Rio de Janeiro February 12, 2012. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Revellers attend a samba parade during pre-carnival festivities in Rio de Janeiro February 12, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Two weeks of police protests in Brazil that led to a bloody crime wave, disrupted preparations for upcoming carnival celebrations, and raised concerns about security ahead of the 2014 soccer World Cup ended on Tuesday when thousands of state police in Rio de Janeiro went back to work.

The police who had stopped work last week to demand higher wages called off their strike late on Monday. Their decision put to rest fears that the protest, just days before Rio's famous carnival festivities begin, might unleash unrest similar to that seen earlier this month in the northeastern state of Bahia and its capital, Salvador.

A strike by Bahia state police led to rampant looting, assaults, and a doubling of Salvador's murder rate, with more than 150 homicides in just over a week.

Police in Rio said they decided to end the strike to ensure an orderly carnival. The small fraction of the force's 70,000 members that ultimately took part in the walkout returned to work "to help Rio de Janeiro and its tourism," said Fernando Bandeiro, one of the police union organizers.

Still, the fact that the police would strike at all - let alone that they stopped work ahead of the country's biggest annual celebration - angered many in the city of 6.5 million people and across Brazil.

In a country proud of recent economic advances and eager to make a leap into the ranks of developed nations, the strikes prompted many Brazilians to question its general state of preparedness.

The unrest also underscored security concerns for the World Cup, scheduled across 12 Brazilian cities in just over two years, and the Olympics in Rio in 2016.

"As a society we've made lots of advances, but institutionally there are still big problems," said Alba Zaluar, an anthropologist and crime researcher at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. "How can our security forces deliberately walk out at the most sensitive possible time?"

Officers in Rio and in other Brazilian states have not ruled out further job action after the carnival. State police officers across the country are demanding salary increases and support for a proposed federal law that would guarantee a minimum wage for the forces nationwide.

Rio's state assembly last week approved an increase in police salaries by 13 percent, and an additional boost next year, to 1,816 Brazilian reais, but the raise is only about half what the officers had demanded. Authorities in Bahia also gave the force there a 6.5 percent increase before that strike ended at the weekend.

Carnival celebrations kick off on Friday and end on February 22.

(Additional reporting and writing by Paulo Prada; editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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