When the police in Vitoria, Brazil, went on strike on February 4, the gangs took over. Since then, Vitoria’s residents have been living in fear as lootings, carjackings and murders abound.


In just ten days, 184 people have died in the Brazilian state of Espirito Santo, according to a report by the police union published on February 13. Since the police went on strike, fear has spread across this coastal region located north of the Brazilian capital, Rio de Janeiro.

Members of the military police, who are responsible for carrying out regular patrols in the city and maintaining security on the ground, went on strike to demand higher salaries and new equipment. Since then, local gangs have taken advantage of the absence of law enforcement to carry out a spate of thefts and looting and to assassinate their rivals.




“I’ve never seen such chaos”

Our Observer is a French national who has been living in Vitoria for the past 14 years with his wife and son. He works as the manager for the local branch of Swiss company that produces railway equipment.

The strike began suddenly on Saturday morning [February 4]. Police in Brazil don’t have the right to strike, so they involved their families in the protests. Angry family members blocked the entrances to all of the police departments in the state of Espirito Santo.

The wives of police officers man a barricade in front of the police station in Vitoria. Their sign reads “Worst salary in Brazil, for better benefits and working conditions”. (photo by our Observer).

I do understand the police officer’s demands. They have the lowest salaries in the country and they haven’t had a raise in three years. During that time, the country has experienced a 23% inflation rate, which means that their money isn’t going as far as it used to.

They also complain about poor work conditions. The police vehicles are in a poor condition. I’ve also heard that they don’t have enough bullet-proof vests and they actually have to take turns wearing them.

Three police officers patrol Vitoria on foot on February 12, 2017 because their vehicles are still blocked by strikers. (photo by our Observer)

When the strike began, the officers barricaded themselves in the police stations or just stayed at home. When people called 190-- the Brazilian emergency number--the operator started putting people through to a civilian police investigation unit that does not usually respond to emergencies. That service was quickly overwhelmed.

Several men exchange fire in a street in a suburb of Vitoria. Our Observer says this video was filmed on February 7, 2017.

Murders, looting and carjackings
 
On Sunday and Monday [February 5 and 6, the days following the start of the strike], local gangs started taking advantage of the situation. There was a wave of homicides, thefts, carjackings, looting and confrontations between gangs linked to drug trafficking. Some foreign media also reported that there was a wave of rapes that occurred but, to the best of my knowledge, that isn’t true.
 
Several men armed with revolvers rob a car and drive away with it. Our Observer provided this photo, which he says he filmed on February 7, 2017.

Starting on Sunday, all of the shops and public services in Vitoria were closed. People locked themselves up at home, so the streets were deserted in the day like the night.

A city bus burns in Vila Velha (a neighbouring city to Vitoria) on February 14, 2017. (photo sent to us by our Observer).

Unfortunately, Brazilians are used to seeing violence and weapons. There are hold-ups and carjackings every day. But the situation that began with the police strike was without precedent. In 14 years of living here, I have never seen this kind of chaos.

Luckily, there haven’t been any shortages. Most people stocked up at the few supermarkets that were open on Tuesday under the watchful eyes of armed security guards. I went myself and had to wait in line for two hours.

Everyone was scared. We were terrified that a bunch of gang members would try to invade our neighbourhood, so we joined forces with the neighbours to hire an armed guard to watch over our families at night. In some neighbourhoods, residents even erected barricades. The general feeling of panic only got worse when rumours started circulating that we were on the brink of a nation-wide civil war.

A progressive return to (relative) calm
 
Soldiers are seen arriving in the city in this video. Our Observer, who shared this footage with us, says it was filmed on February 7, 2017.

Starting on Tuesday [February 7], soldiers and special police units arrived in Vitoria on orders from the central government [Editor’s note: About 3,000 men were deployed according to official figures]. There were tanks all over the city. Moreover, some police officers went back to work. Calm has slowly returned to Vitoria. My son was able to go back to school on Tuesday [February 14].

In spite of everything, some neighbourhoods are still in the grip of violence, especially in some of the rougher suburbs. The situation definitely isn’t fully under control. There are some police officers who are still on strike.

What we experienced last week, the fear, the gunshots and being trapped at home is the daily reality for the people living in some suburbs of Vitoria and the capital, Rio de Janeiro. I’m worried that this situation could spread across the country. I’ve started to think about my son’s future and I’m considering leaving the country.

Even if Brazil is known for its high crime rates, recent events in Vitoria have been especially bloody, according to our Observer.

In 2016, there were 1,981 murders in Espirito Santo state, according to official statistics. In the first ten days of the strike alone, the number of homicides reported reached 10% of this yearly figure, confirming the reported escalation in violence.
 
Article written with
Liselotte Mas

Liselotte Mas