An Urban War Zone – The violent crisis in the Espirito Santo state.

*Protest of residents in front of the police headquarters in Vitoria.
Photo credit:  Agência Brasil Fotografias – February 07, 2017

by Mario Saraiva, Co Editor and Writer at Brazil Talk

In an exclusive interview, a retired colonel of the Espirito Santo military police, Colonel José Nivaldo, explained the complexity of the wave crime in the State.

“I have been a police officer for 40 years and I have never seen anything close to this [situation in Espirito Santo]”.

“[The strike] started on Friday. By Saturday we had a state-wide dissatisfaction. Sunday, during the day, night, and Monday morning, a disproportionate number of crimes against patrimony, looting, thefts and homicides took place throughout the state.”

“It has been over 100 deaths” in one week of protests.

YouTube and social media have hundreds of footages of robbery, looting, shooting and civil unrest. In one particular footage, a stolen car is used to force the entrance into a jewelry store, while many other videos show the moment of break into several department stores.

How it all started:

“The first hours of the strike were horrible.” It started as a small protest in front of the military police quarters (Quartel da Policia Militar) at the Serra municipality, near the city of Vitoria. On Friday, Feb 3, a group of female protesters – mainly, wives, daughters, mothers, and relatives of policemen – blocked the exit/entrance of police cars from the quarter, demanding better salaries for the police. Officers refused to remove protester (their own relatives) and clear the way. At first, “it was an unpretentious protest.”

The protest quickly spread becoming a movement with police quarters being blocked throughout the state. By Saturday, February 4, it became a state-wide manifestation of the growing dissatisfaction of family members and police officers.

A unique movement

This unique social movement is 100% led by outraged (courageous) women that stand in front of the gates of the quarters commanding the police not go out to the streets. The movement grew unexpectedly through Whats’app and social media.

The demand is simple: better salaries. But the solution is complicated, given the economic context of Brazil, and the limitations that it imposes in public spending.

The Crisis

“There is a statewide dissatisfaction with salaries and the penitentiary system.”

In 2013, the initial salary of a new military police soldier (policia militar in Portuguese) in Espirito Santo was BRL 2.631,97 (gross) or approximately USD 1140 per month (~ USD 7 per hour). [1] The last salary readjustment was in 2012. To cope with the inflation salaries must receive a readjustment of at least 27.73% without taking into account the change in taxes.  

Brazil is slowly recovering from its worst recession. The fiscal crisis has hit hard: some Brazilian states, such as Rio de Janeiro and Rio grande do Sul,  do not have enough funds to pay the salary of teachers, doctors, and other civil servants. Governors have the difficult task of deciding how to keep the state functioning without money. Additionally, Brazilian states are limited by the Fiscal Responsibility Law to increase their expenses. In a recent press conference the governor of Espirito Santo, Paulo Hartung explained that the State is paying the police on time and close to the ceiling established by the Fiscal Responsibility Law (LRF).[2]

On top of that, it is hard to negotiate right now. The movement [that now is not only composed of women, was spontaneous and informal; without a formal structure and leader.

“In a normal situation, the leader of the movement would negotiate the demands with government authorities. However, in this case, the lack of a vertical structure prevents the identification of a single leader to negotiate demands. Although there are different leaders, most protesters do not know them.” It is hard to negotiate a solution in a situation like that.

This absence of formal structure and communication of protesters poses another problem. Nobody knows where to confirm information. It is difficult to discern what is true. The population is panicky. The environment is perfect for rumors to spread stirring even more fear. And that is the biggest problem – widespread fear.

What has been done so far

As this article is being written, the state government of Espirito Santo has taken the following measures to neutralize the crisis:

  1.     The head commander of the military police was replaced;
  2.     The governor asked the judiciary to rule the strike as “illegal and unconstitutional” imposing a fine to each officer that does not fulfill its duty;
  3.     He urged the federal government for reinforcement in public security; and
  4.     Transferred the power of public safety to general of the Brazilian army.

The federal government quickly authorized the deployment of the army to Espirito Santo. Additionally, a contingent of the National Security forces – a special type of police trained for special situations – was also assigned to the state.

On Monday, Feb 6, the army and National security officer began patrolling the streets of Vitoria.

As it would be expected in a war scene, residents welcomed military troops with loud cheers as military trucks drove by the neighborhoods of Vitoria.

Nevertheless, the population still does not feel safe. “The military came, but not much has changed. People can’t go out. They can’t go to church. Schools had their classes suspended. People are stocking food and there is a shortage of some products in grocery stores. The Darcy Castello bridge, that usually has intense traffic throughout the day, is almost empty” said Osvaldo Junior, a local pastor that lives in Vila Velha, Espírito Santo.

“Many young people are dead. There is no police to enforce the law, it is a lawless city.”

To this day, more than 100 people have been killed, according to civil police reports.

As I write this article, the Espirito Santo State Government is meeting with representatives of the movement and hopefully, a positive outcome will be reached. The situation cannot go on like this. Even if the conflict is resolved tomorrow, however, the underlying problem will not be solved. Low police wages and violence are not a problem of one state or another, as mentioned before. Violence is an issue throughout Brazil, in the first 15 days of 2017 142 people were killed inside prisons during acts of violence, the country needs a profound public safety reform.

The loss of human lives is regrettable.”

The loss of peace is regrettable.” said Colonel Nivaldo ending the interview.

In many senses, Brazil is at war.



[2] PRODEST, & ES, P. (n.d.). Hartung afirma que população não pode ser refém de greve da PM. Retrieved February 10, 2017, from