Sobral, a city of just over 200,000 inhabitants of northeastern Brazil, has been for 13 days the epicenter of a serious security crisis that has caused surreal scenes. Cid Gomes, a city-born senator and an opponent of President Jair Bolsonaro, was shot to death when he tried to break into an enclosure of striking policemen who have taken the city hostage, with surveillance on the streets reduced to a minimum.
The protesters, members of the military police – the one who usually intervene in the streets – had occupied the Sobral barracks in the State of Ceará on February 18. They also rioted in the state capital, Fortaleza. They are unhappy with their salaries and the promotion system and body scales. Camilo Santana, governor of Ceará and a militant of the Workers Party (PT, the main opposition formation), promised to take on some of his demands to placate the protests. Although some professional associations accepted the possibility of an agreement, part of the agents rejected it and rebelled. Thirteen days has lasted the illegal strike that has kept the city of Sobral hostage to the mutineers for 13 days.
Striking military police have returned to their jobs on Monday morning after they gave up last night and ended the strike, although without achieving the amnesty they were looking for.
A climate of panic had taken over the State, which accounted for 220 murders from the start of the strike until Saturday, an average of 20 homicides a day, compared to 12 newspapers last year. The most unusual episode occurred on February 19 in Sobral, when hooded policemen forced merchants to close their stores. “Sobral things have always happened in Sobral, but I had never seen the city change like that day,” says Francisco Belarmino de Lima, 56, from his cafeteria, in the street of the barracks taken. He was about to return home when police sirens began to sound insistently. At least three official cars circulated around the center, from which hooded men gestured nervously urging business to close. The neighbors believed that they were criminals who had stolen vehicles to storm the city.
“Sobral looked like a city at war. We lived an hour of panic, we thought they were criminal gangs. Only after we understood that it was the police themselves, when they heard the news on the radio, ”says a woman who does not want to be identified. Few official cars circulate on the streets. “We hardly see cops. I come to work with fear, ”says saleswoman Francisca Alves.
The conflict in Sobral is the climax of the escalating tension caused by a latent police unrest in Ceará. Although the Brazilian Constitution prohibits the arrest of military police because of the essential nature of their activity, these facts are recurring. Eight years ago, Ceará went on a strike that catapulted several military police officers in charge of councilors and deputies. Then it lasted six days and the protesters were amnestied.
The military police have a great weight in the spaces of power, but their leaders no longer play the same centrality in decision making. The mutineers are mainly young soldiers who did not participate in the previous strike and who see the hard-handed speech of ultra-right-wing president Bolsonaro as a solution to the problem of insecurity. “If there were any other president in power, we would be treated as criminals. The president has not solved our problem because the system does not leave him. The State Government has to do it, ”says a quartered in Sobral.
Since the beginning of the strike, the federal government has sent more than 2,000 soldiers to Ceará at the request of the governor, to carry out security tasks, in a deployment extended on Saturday until Friday. Bolsonaro had considered withdrawing them, which was interpreted as an indirect approval of the strike. In Sobral, protesters also interpret the fact positively. “We know that he does what he can because, as president, he cannot say that he agrees with an illegal movement,” says one quartered.
At the beginning of his military career, Bolsonaro led a riot. Thus he created a support base that kept him 30 years in Congress, from where he has always defended the demands of the body. Security is one of its main flags and its ideas beat in the most radicalized sector of the mutineers. “Our generation knows that there is only security if we can shoot. The crime is huge, ”defends another policeman.
Today, representatives of Congress and the Supreme Court maneuver behind the scenes to ensure that the military remains in Ceará. Protesters call for amnesty, something that the State Government considers non-negotiable. The tension has increased since the Prosecutor’s Office began investigating the mutineers. The strike already lasts twelve days and its end is not glimpsed.