With just over a month to go until the World Cup kicks off in Brazil, federal police across the country walked off the job on Wednesday for a 24-hour strike over low wages.
They also promised to go on strike during the tournament — which starts on June 12 and will be hosted in 12 Brazilian cities — if authorities don’t give their demands a “satisfactory response,” according to AFP.
The striking officers told the BBC that at least 40 percent of the 13,000-strong force joined the protest, and groups of officers gathered at peaceful rallies in several cities.
In Rio, a few dozen policemen covered their faces with red scarves and wore T-shirts with the slogan "SOS federal police."
Other officers showed their team spirit and wore Brazilian flags outside Rio’s concert hall, where the national soccer team coach Luiz Felipe Scolari was announcing his roster of players for tournament.
“Good luck Felipe,” one of the protesters’ signs read, while a giant inflatable white elephant took a stab at what protesters said was the government’s “inflated” spending.
A police walkout in the middle of the World Cup could have disastrous effects, which represents a significant bargaining chip for the officers.
In April, police went on strike in Salvador de Bahia, leading to a surge in lootings and murders that forced the government to send in the military to reign in the chaos.
According to AFP, Brazil’s police earn between 7,500 and 12,800 reais ($3,200 to $5,800) a month — before taxes — and many have been leaving the force for better paying jobs.
"Salaries have been on the slide,” federal police union leader Andre Vax de Mello told the press agency, adding that upwards of 250 officers leave the force every year, then “take exams to gain entry to other, better-paid public bodies."
“Nobody is against the country or against the population. But the federal police is not ready to act during the world cup,” de Mello said. “The growing deterioration, due to a lack of care on the government’s part, is notorious, and as a result of that our performance has dramatically decreased.”
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"Federal agents are the only category of workers whose salary has been frozen in the last five years," Renato Deslandes, a spokesman for the federation, told the BBC. The officers are demanding that their salaries keep pace with the country’s growing food prices, as inflation in Brazil has taken a 6.15 percent hike in the last 12 months.
"We are not looking for a real salary increase, but a readjustment in accordance with inflation during those five years,” Deslandes said.
But the Brazilian police’s role in the preparation to the World Cup has been controversial, to say the least.
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At Copacabana Beach, also on Wednesday, protesters drew red crosses on soccer balls and lined them up on the sand, next to signs with the names and ages of children killed during police operations in the city’s “pacified” slums.
Protesters there said that the money spent on World Cup preparations should have instead gone to education, health care, and improved security in the city’s favelas.
Rio de Paz, the NGO that organized the protest, held a similar event last month, next to the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio.
“Pacification” has been a hugely divisive issue in Brazil’s preparation for the World Cup and the Olympics in 2016. If you ask authorities, they will say they have cleared the slums of violent drug traffickers and other criminals.
But if you ask the residents of some of the poorest urban communities in Brazil about the policy, they will tell you that the clean-up has brought in a much worse wave of harassment, abuse, and police killings than the circumstances they suffered under the rule of criminal gangs.
Earlier this month, deadly clashes broke out in the favela of Pavao-Pavaozinho, near the touristy Copacabana, after protesters accused police of killing a popular dancer during a raid.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi