VITORIA, Brazil – A taxi driver has been greeting potential customers at the airport in this southeastern Brazilian city with a “Welcome to Iraq” sign, ominously warning them of the climate of violence that awaits them due to a lack of law enforcement.
Military police stopped patrolling the streets on Saturday to protest their working conditions and a salary freeze.
Although these officers are prohibited by law from going on strike, they are effectively carrying out a work stoppage by not removing family members who are blocking them from leaving their stations.
Vitoria, which is home to more than 350,000 inhabitants and the capital of the state of Espirito Santo, is typically a tranquil city that garners little attention from the national media.
But that has changed as a result of the state-wide military police crisis, which has been blamed for nearly 100 homicides and turned the state capital into a virtual ghost town with businesses shuttered, public transportation halted and scarcely anyone on the streets.
“Things get really ugly at night. It’s a very tense situation,” 24-year-old Rodrigo said while waiting in line at a supermarket.
At least 90 people have been killed in the state over the past five days, almost all of them in Vitoria, while hundreds of stores have been looted.
A total of 1,200 soldiers and members of the elite National Public Security Force have been deployed in Vitoria.
But their presence has not stamped out the wave of violence and confusion, leading business owners to pay for private security and hire civilian police officers to guard their establishments.
“We work seven-hour shifts and charge nearly 500 reais (around $160) a day,” one of the officers said on condition of anonymity, making it clear he did not want to be filmed or photographed.
He told EFE that the state government had refused to discuss a hike in police salaries.
“This is chaos. We’re here because we need money when we should be at home with our families, but it’s impossible to live on the small amount we make,” the police officer added.
Budget crises are affecting states across Brazil, which is currently mired in a long recession.
The target of nearly all the criticism on the streets of Vitoria was Espirito Santo Gov. Paulo Hartung, a member of the nationally ruling Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) who was re-elected in late 2014.