The army’s in town. How bad is the police strike in Salvador?

I’ve seen these guys in my neighborhood. Photo source

Before I came to Brazil, I don’t think I even knew a police strike was possible.

But the Military Police in Bahia have been on strike for the past seven days, making Salvador a more dangerous city than it normally is. Over 3,000 soldiers from the Brazilian military have arrived in Salvador to provide an extra measure of security. The story has been reported in the international press, and I’ve JUST found out that we made it into an “emergency travel alert” on the U.S. consulate’s website.

This strike is strategically timed to pressure the government to raise police salaries and resolve the problem before Carnaval. Carnaval in Salvador is one of the world’s biggest street parties and already has a reputation for being violent, so imagine how much worse it would be with a weakened police force. The state would lose a lot of tourism dollars.

Things are bad. But with that said, they’re not THAT bad. Not as bad as the media might have you believe. When you read about a “wave of violence,” the “tripled homicide rate,” and the “tense atmosphere” as it’s being reported, it makes the city sound like a war zone. And it’s not quite.

First, let’s look at this rather misleading phrase:

“Official figures suggest the murder rate has more than doubled in the state capital, Salvador, since police stopped work there on Tuesday.” – BBC News

Police have not “stopped work.” Not all of them, anyway. I read in a local paper that about a third of the police force is on strike. So there are still police around, just not as many. The BBC quote makes it sound like there’s NO law enforcement whatsoever.

Now let’s look at this more-than-doubled homicide rate.

The good (?) thing about homicides in Salvador is that they are overwhelmingly drug-related (someone owed someone money), revenge-related (husband kills wife’s lover), or deadly-fight-breaking-out-at-a-bar-late-at-night related. Mostly the former. Essentially, it’s unusual for someone to be killed as an innocent bystander.

“Senseless” violence like school-shooting type incidents or random-nut-going-on-a-rampage situations are so unusual that when Brazil’s first-ever school shooting happened in Rio de Janeiro state last year, the country – and the president – was absolutely shocked. It had been completely unheard of and unthinkable. As one of my students said to me, “Of course we have violence because of the drug trade, it’s logical. But at least we aren’t crazy like some of the American and European killers.”

Even among people I’ve known who have been robbed on the street – even robbed at gunpoint (including my husband) – if you cooperate with the robber and give him your stuff, it’s unlikely he’ll hurt you. All the cases I’ve heard of where the victim was beaten up or stabbed were because they tried to fight back.

Regarding the 95 homicides in the past 7 days of the strike, I’ve been reading up and quite a few of them are “de madrugada” (in the wee hours of the morning) – when no one should be out on the streets anyway.

Here’s another quote:

Troops surrounded the building Monday as the strike that has paralyzed the city moved into its sixth day. – Boston Globe

The strike has not “paralyzed the city.” There has been looting – including one of my favorite ice cream spots a 5-minute walk from my house. But it’s not a lawless free-for-all. Stores are still open for business as usual, though some are closing earlier than their normal 6 or 7 PM. Buses are still running. OK, so schools and colleges are delaying the beginning of the new semester, which was supposed to start around now. But I wouldn’t call that “paralysis.”

About the “climate of tension” – there are several thousand police officers and their families camped out in a legislative assembly building, and several hundred soldiers were sent to try and get them out (because clearly, getting sleeping striking police officers out of a building is more important than protecting the streets, but I digress). Rubber bullets have been fired. One person has been hurt by them. Yes, the climate is tense – in one very specific tiny area of the 273-square-mile city.

Here’s another example – a band of people marched through the streets of Nordeste de Amaralina (already one of Salvador’s worst neighborhoods) yelling. One of them had a revolver. They didn’t loot any stores. They didn’t shoot anyone. All they did was yell and scare everyone. LAME. Incidents like this have caused some to suggest that some of this “surge of violence” is being instigated by friends of the police themselves, in order to increase the pressure to acquiesce to the salary demands.

To be fair, I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who is doubly blessed – I live in a touristic neighborhood, so this is one of the “priority” areas for receiving police/army protection; and my evening students are on vacation, so I don’t have to wait for the bus or walk home at 10 PM like I normally would.

However, from what I can see, Bahians are taking a few extra precautions (closing stores earlier, avoiding going out at night unless necessary) but other than that are simply putting their heads down and pushing through this “difficult” time in the city’s life.

  • Great to get the perspective of someone who is actually there. I did wonder how you were getting on when I read that BBC article yesterday. I suspected that it was being hyped (at least partially) by the media and it’s good to hear that you don’t sound overly worried (though I’m sure you’ll be happy when this situation is resolved). Take care!

    • Shayna

      It annoys me that the media sensationalizes everything. I find things FAR more hyped up in the U.S. than here, but still, little things like word choice can make a huge difference!

  • We had a strike here. Things got nutty for this small town, but then it passed. IMO police should not be allowed to strike.

    I’ve been to enough meeting and been mis-quoted in the newspaper enough/ had things taken out of context that I know to take all reporting with a grain of salt.

    It reminds me of walking down the street in Turkey, with a dear friend, who ran off to burn an American flag for CNN (there were 6 of them, but on the news it looked like a MOB!) and then running to catch up with us at the beer garden. It was very, very funny.

    • Shayna

      That’s crazy about your friend in Turkey! Sometimes I wonder, is it the chicken or the egg? Does sensationalized news succeed because the public likes it, or does the public like it because we’re fed a steady diet of it? This is also why there are a lot of Americans who are afraid to leave the country.

  • It’s nice to read from the perspective of someone (an expat) living in Salvador. I’ve seen it on the news, but you can never believe everything you see on TV/read in newspapers.

  • Excellent post, I appreciate all the detail. I would say that things are definitely tense here in *my* neighborhood however, if only in the sense that everyone is edgy and talking about the situation all the time. My wife had lots of stories about her neighborhood in the suburbana, but I have no idea how much of that is rumor.

    As for the mortality rate, I just discovered a customer of mine, and an active pichador here in the city, was one of the victims, although I don’t know the circumstances. I think it happened near the center, and definitely not in the wee hours of the morning. No matter how you cut it, 95 deaths in seven days sounds like an awful lot of people to me. And although I agree with you that you’re potentially taking a big risk being out in the wee hours, I think it’s a real shame that it’s like that.

    I just saw on A Tarde online that a flyer went around the neighborhood of Periperi, warning all the shop owners not to open tomorrow. I guess if folks heed the warning, whether it’s a prank or not, would be a fairly good gauge of how tense people are. But by and large I agree with you – there’s a surprising amount of business as usual going on.

    • Shayna

      Yesterday we heard while in the capo academy that there’d been a stabbing in your neighborhood around mid-day, sounds like it was the result of a bar fight. I’m sorry to hear about Sinal… another life cut far too short.

  • nina

    Rachel posted on facebook, that Rio was heading for a strike too. We had a school strike in Paulinia, where the schools were shut down for 4 months. It was terrible. Maybe worse then a police strike because the kids were in the streets for like 7 months straight with nothing to do.

    But I hope that is gets resolved soon and that if a raise does come through you will have better police. Living in a a city where the police get a super high payment, I don’t believe it changes the corruption. It seems to be something culturally within the police force in Brazil (or in my city). However, not all the police are corrupted in Paulinia. But today I did see our number one drug dealer having a conversation that looked way too friendly with the police by my house.

  • I was wondering how you were doing, so thanks for writing this article.

    I agree with Jennifer and do not believe that police should be allowed to strike. However, this could be a pivotal turning point for the city of Salvador and maybe Brazil all over. I just hope it ends soon and the outcome is good.

    And yes, even here I see sensationalized crap about it. The freaking state department makes me want to kill myself sometimes, ugghghhh.

    Stay safe!

  • Glad to hear that you are trudging through this difficult time and that things are not really that bad! Prayers out to you and your family 🙂 and all the people of Salvador!

    • Shayna


  • Glad to hear things are not as bad as the media is making them seem. There’s talks that the Rio cops may join the strike if some demands aren’t met. They’d start the 10th of Feb. Right at the start of Carnaval in Rio…

    Anyway, I was freaked out about it yesterday but your post calmed my nerves and let my brain do the thinking. THanks!

  • Cecilia Butcher

    Interesting however I suspect you wrote this so your parents nerves would be calmer 🙂

  • Cecilia Butcher

    btw looks like you can’t believe the media anywhere

  • Finn Sheye

    Good to hear that it is not that bad, but anyway sad that people are afraid and to hear that the police can strike is very new to me too! Take care and keep us posted on the developments!

    • Shayna

      Negotiations are currently underway – which is at least a small step forward, since when the strike began, the government said it was an “illegal” strike and refused to negotiate. I have high hopes that it’ll resolve within the next week!

      • Finn

        Its great to hear that you expect it to end during the next week as I arrive next Wednesday. I am going to be on the north coast, but would really like to be able to join the carnival one or two days

        • Shayna

          The current news says that Carnaval is going to happen whether the strike comes to an end or not… but on the off chance that the strike is not resolved, just make sure not to bring anything to Carnaval that you’re not willing to lose. Leave your original documents in the hotel and only take as much money as you need. Then again, this be my advice even in normal circumstances 🙂 Happy travels!

          • Finn

            That is for sure, nothing of value with us during carnival We have been there many times and never had problems because we are careful

  • Finn Sheye

    I have been informed by my Brazilian wife that the strike has ended today. She is now in Salvador. So I hope the city will get back to normal soon!

  • Finn Sheye

    I have now understood that the strike is not completely over. Do you know more?

    • Shayna

      The main leaders were captured and the building where the strikers were camping out was evacuated, however, they didn’t accept the negotiated settlement regarding salaries etc. The latest – published this morning – is that the General Commander of the military police says the strike is over, but some strikers still say it’s not. They’re meeting today at 4 PM to decide what to do.

    • Shayna

      The police commander says that anyone who doesn’t go back to work will be punished, but after today’s meeting, the workers decided to continue the strike 🙁 They have another meeting tomorrow, presumably to decide what their demands will be.

      • Finn

        How sad, and what about the carnival? Now they will strike too in Rio it will be difficult to stop it in Salvador! Probably better to stay in Praia do Forte!

  • Luasol

    I did not know this was going on until reading your blog. Apparently, I have been out of the loop. That’s scary, be safe. Media does sensationalize. I agree, police should not go on strike. Glad I am going to Itacare, instead of Salvador for Carnaval!

  • Finn Sheye

    Do anyone know how things are today in Salvador?

    • Shayna

      The strike is over! They announced the end Saturday evening.

      • Finn Sheye

        Thanks a lot! That was good news!!