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Some Brazil police break strike following wave of homicides

By Paulo Whitaker

VITORIA, Brazil (Reuters) - More than 1,200 police broke an eight-day strike Sunday in a coastal Brazilian state that had seen a dramatic increase in homicides during the stoppage, but where the violence is now receding.

Over 3,100 Army soldiers and members of an elite federal police force helped patrol Espirito Santo state, which saw chaotic looting, the closing of stores, school and hospitals and a six-fold increase in murders in the past week as police refused to work, demanding an increase in pay.

Despite the crack in the strike, roughly 10,000 police still adhered to the stoppage Sunday.

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Most of the violence has been centered in the poorer areas of metropolitan Vitoria, the state capital with about 2 million people living in the region dominated by the mining, petroleum and port industries.

According to the police union, 144 murders have taken place since the strike started on Feb. 4. Security officials say most of the deaths are linked to the drug trade, though bystanders have also been killed. The death toll in the past day, however, dropped significantly, though still was twice the normal rate.

The state has yet to make any concessions to the officers regarding their monthly pay, which at about 2,700 reais ($867) is among the lowest in Brazil.

Instead, the officers heeded the call of Defense Minister Raul Jungmann, who visited Vitoria Saturday and strongly urged officers to do their duty, saying if they refused they were siding with the criminals carrying out the killings.

Jungmann and other ministers of President Michel Temer met Sunday to discuss the security situation in Espirito Santo and elsewhere.

"We've come to the conclusion that with regard to order and security (in Espirito Santo), it has recuperated and been saved," Jungmann told reporters in Brasilia after the meeting.

"The major victory has been the restoration of tranquility. Tomorrow schools will open, businesses will open, and the public transportation system should be working normally."

Wives and other family members of the police have led the strike, forming human blockades around the entrances of barracks. They remained in place on Sunday, blocking the ability of police cars to exit, forcing the roughly 1,200 officers who returned to work to mostly patrol on foot, though 59 police cars were in use.

Scores of police who went back to work were ferried out of their blockaded battalions by Army helicopters, security officials in Espirito Santo said.

Under Brazilian law, it is illegal for police to strike, which is why their family members have taken action to physically prevent police cars leaving barracks. The police themselves have not tried to remove their families, leading to fears among some of the relatives that soldiers could try to remove them by force.

In neighboring Rio de Janeiro state, family members have also protested outside nearly 30 battalions, mostly in the metropolitan Rio city area where some 12 million people reside.

Security officials have said their actions have had little impact on policing, with some 95 percent of officers at work.

However, on Sunday, Luiz Santos, the vice president of the Botafogo soccer club, told the Globo Radio he was concerned about security at the evening's match against heated rival Flamengo, a game which routinely sees fights break out between fans. He said he thought only about half the normal police that patrol inside the stadium during such matches were present.

Security officials, however, denied there were any problems arranging security for the match and said police staffing for the match would at normal levels.

(Reporting by Paulo Whitaker; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Sao Paulo and Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia; Editing by Alan Crosby)

 
 
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