Hundreds of police back on duty in paralyzed Brazil state

AP News
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Posted: Feb 11, 2017 6:44 PM
Hundreds of police back on duty in paralyzed Brazil state

SAO PAULO (AP) — Several hundred military police returned to duty in Espirito Santo on Saturday, but authorities said a weeklong strike that has paralyzed the southeastern Brazilian state and led to a wave of homicides was not over.

Earlier in the day, the defense minister appealed to "all of the good police officers" to return to the streets, even as he said that life was beginning to return to normal now that more than 3,000 federal troops are on patrol.

Late Saturday, 600 officers began doing just that, mustering in the state capital of Vitoria and four other towns, according to the Espirito Santo Public Safety Department. In a symbolic blow to the protest movement, helicopters landed on the roof of the barracks of the military police command and ferried away 70 officers who were inside and couldn't leave through the doors because of the barricade.

In photos handed out by the department, police, in uniform and not, could be seen lining up in formation in public squares. At least some of them then went out on patrol, according to Gustavo Tenorio, a spokesman for the department.

The Folha de S.Paulo newspaper also reported seeing five police vehicles circulating in Vitoria.

But Tenorio said the strike was not over, and that friends and relatives of the police officers are continuing to block their barracks, as they have for the last week, to demand higher pay for their loved ones. Those protests have prevented vehicles from exiting, thus paralyzing the force.

Earlier in the day, the government said the relatives had rejected an agreement, announced Friday, to end the standoff. Because members of the military police, who patrol Brazilian cities, are forbidden to strike, relatives of the officers took the lead, but state authorities have accused the officers themselves of being behind the movement. Union leaders have denied this, but said they support the protesters' goals.

The state has seen an extraordinary wave of violence since the standoff began. Shops have been looted and buses burned, and the union representing civil police officers says 137 people have been killed since military police stopped patrolling. The state government has not released a death toll.

To stem the violence, the state called in federal troops, including both members of the military and the national guard, who have been patrolling the streets of several cities. Defense Minister Raul Jungmann said 3,130 troops were now in the state.

Jungmann told reporters that, since the troops arrived, looting and break-ins have stopped. He also said there had been a reduction in homicides, though the rate remains higher than normal.

Amid the insecurity, most state services ground to a halt, with schools and health centers closing and city buses sitting idle.

Bus service partially resumed in Vitoria on Saturday, and hospitals were open, according to Tenorio. But smaller health centers remained closed.

"On Monday, this was a ghost town," Jungmann told reporters. "Today, we see a city that is getting back to normal: People are on the beach, people are in the streets, people are moving about."

The government, which is experiencing an economic and fiscal crisis like many Brazilian states, has rejected demands for higher pay, though it said Friday it would analyze the system of promotions.

The strike in Espirito Santo inspired a handful of much smaller family protests in neighboring Rio de Janeiro state on Friday and Saturday. However, in Rio, family members did not block barracks, instead demonstrating peacefully outside them. The military police there took to Twitter to repeatedly reassure the population that they were on patrol.