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Weekly Report - 27 February 2020 (WR-20-08)

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BRAZIL: Ceará Carnival marred by protesting police

A number of cities in Brazil’s north-eastern state of Ceará cancelled Carnival celebrations over the weekend of 22-23 February, as protests by members of the military police (PM) demanding a salary increase jeopardised the guarantee of public security there.

As Ceará’s legislative assembly has been considering a proposal to increase police salaries, the state’s PM had voiced demands and called for protests on several occasions over the past few months. The situation came to a head last week as small groups of hooded individuals, many identifying as police officers, began committing what authorities have described as acts of mutiny.

Protesters vandalised police vehicles, blocked police stations, ordered businesses to remain closed, and in one case, even fired gunshots at a senator, Cid Gomes, as he confronted a picket-line of masked protesters with a digger in his hometown of Sobral.  

Brazil’s constitution prohibits the country’s security forces from unionising and striking, and the demonstrations in Ceará have been denounced as dangerous and illegal by members of the supreme court (STF). As of 25 February, a reported 47 PM officers had been arrested for desertion or mutiny, and in excess of 200 officers have been suspended while they face disciplinary proceedings. Earlier attempts to reach an agreement between the PM and state authorities over the pay rise have failed, and Ceará state governor Camilo Santana, from the leftist Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), has indicated he will not give amnesty to the mutineers.

Federal reinforcements have been sent to Ceará, with Justice & Public Security Minister Sérgio Moro allowing the deployment of the Força Nacional de Segurança Pública (FNSP) national guard for 30 days from 20 February. President Jair Bolsonaro, meanwhile, signed off on a Garantia da Lei e da Ordem (GLO) decree – at Santana’s request – which sends in the army until 28 February.

While visiting Ceará on 24 February alongside Defence Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva, Moro gave assurances that “the situation is under control.” Nevertheless, homicides have spiked since the police protests began in earnest last week; 170 were recorded between 19 and 24 February. Nine municipalities were reported to have cancelled Carnival celebrations amid concerns that the authorities would be unable to guarantee carnival-goers’ security.

Although technically illegal, police strikes are not infrequent in Brazil. In 2011 and 2012, Ceará’s PM staged a week-long strike, also demanding salary increases. More recently, in 2017, the state of Espírito Santo saw its Carnival overshadowed by one of Brazil’s largest PM protests ever, which lasted a full three weeks.

However, the political background has since shifted. Brazil’s police forces in general gained a political voice in the 2018 general elections, with the election of four federal senators and 32 deputies linked to either federal or state police forces.

President Bolsonaro is an unquestioning supporter of the police and its actions – he once again advocated in favour of legislation protecting security forces when they kill in the line of duty when he announced the GLO on 20 February – and his presidential discourse has potentially emboldened some members of the force to make demands in defiance of their constitutional duty to provide security.

Discussions over state police salary increases are not limited to Ceará, and there are concerns that the unrest could spread to the police forces in other states. The issue risks becoming politically charged; although fragmented, the Ceará movement appears to have won the support of some local right-wing politicians, and it is deemed to be deepening disagreements between the federal government and state governments led by opposition parties, as is the case with Ceará’s Santana.

Milícias

The police mutiny in Ceará has fuelled discussions over the proliferation of ‘milícias’, violent vigilante groups often composed of members of the state security forces and with links to local politics. Well-established in the states of Pará and Rio de Janeiro, they appear to be growing in number and influence across the country. In Ceará, some of the revolting PM officers’ actions, such as intimidating local residents while keeping their faces covered, have been described as typical of vigilante groups.