Hundreds of striking police officers on Thursday ended their 10-day occupation of a state assembly house in Brazil's third-biggest city, easing tensions in a walkout that unleashed a bloody crime wave and threatened upcoming carnival celebrations.
It was unclear, however, whether the decision by 245 striking police and family members to leave the assembly building would lead to an end to the strike itself. Strikers were expected to meet Thursday afternoon to decide whether their work stoppage would continue.
In addition to disrupting preparations and scaring off visitors ahead of next week's carnival festivities, the job action has raised doubts about security in Brazil ahead of the 2014 World Cup.
About 20 percent of the 31,000 police officers in Bahia, the northeastern state of which Salvador is the capital, walked off their jobs on January 31. The stoppage led to a crime spree that included at least 150 murders, twice the regular homicide rate, and widespread assaults, looting and vandalism.
Some of the offenses allegedly were committed by police officers themselves, complicating negotiations with state officials who have refused the strikers' demands that officers be pardoned for any crimes during the walkout.
President Dilma Rousseff, who late last week dispatched 3,000 federal troops to Bahia to restore order, backed state officials' unwillingness to consider an amnesty.
There can be no amnesty for illegal acts, crimes against property, crimes against people, crimes against public order, Rousseff said on Thursday during a visit to Bahia's neighbouring state of Pernambuco. Such an amnesty, she added, would create a country without rules.
The end of the statehouse occupation provided some relief to a city stricken by fear at a time when Salvador normally would be gearing up for its popular annual carnival celebrations. It also saps momentum from a protest that officials feared could spread to Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian states where police officers, like those in Bahia, are demanding a pay raise.
Salvador and Rio are among the 12 cities chosen as venues for soccer's World Cup, just two years away, which is expected to attract as many as 600,000 foreign visitors. Having already faced criticisms by FIFA, soccer's governing body, over the country's preparations for the event, Brazilian officials are scrambling to ensure that security woes don't complicate matters further.
CARNIVAL IN DOUBT?
Though many Brazilians understand the plight of the striking police, whose wages are low compared with many private-sector workers, the chaos caused by the walkout has brought heavy condemnation of the strike by citizens and government leaders alike.
It's not possible for those who receive money and arms from the people for protection to use those arms against them, said Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo.
The federal government, he added, would deploy more troops and additional resources if needed in other states to ensure that the chaos does not spread. Carnival, he predicted, will proceed with absolute tranquillity. Carnival begins February 17 and lasts through February 22.
State security leaders in Rio have also said they can ensure adequate protection in the city even if police there do decide to strike. The state's assembly voted Thursday afternoon to increase police wages in Rio by 13 percent, with an additional hike next year, though police haven't yet said whether the increase would be enough to prevent a walkout.
Two alleged leaders of the Bahia strike were arrested as they abandoned the assembly house on Thursday, including one officer who was heard in a leaked telephone recording inciting police outside Salvador to block traffic on a federal highway.
A fireman, part of the Rio state force considering strikes, was arrested Wednesday following a visit to Salvador during which he was recorded discussing ways to leverage the Bahia protests to spread unrest to his region.
State officials in Bahia were expected to resume talks with the striking police late Thursday. Officials have already agreed to a 6.5 percent wage hike for the police force, but hit an impasse over the demands for amnesty.
Police officers in other states, including Rio, are also expected to meet late Thursday and in following days to discuss whether strikes elsewhere would proceed.
In addition to the bloodshed, the Bahia protest has taken a heavy economic toll in Salvador. Carnival lures as many as 2 million people to Salvador's seaside streets each year, including as many as 500,000 foreign tourists, according to the municipal tourism bureau.
Since the strike began, shopkeepers, restaurants, and other businesses have closed or curtailed their hours. Concerts and other events have been called off. Tourism officials say at least 10 percent of the reservations made by visitors from outside the area have been cancelled in recent days.
For many of the striking police the disruptions are exactly the point. On Wednesday, outside the state assembly house where some of their colleagues had barricaded themselves, many of the police chanted, Oh, oh, oh. Carnival is doomed!
(Writing by Paulo Prada; Editing by Todd Benson and Eric Beech)