HomeNewsAnalysisRio Real: How Firemen, Militias and Politicians Mix in Brazil

Rio Real: How Firemen, Militias and Politicians Mix in Brazil


Rio's firemen are striking for higher salaries, and many support them. But behind the calls for better pay for heroes may lie a thorny issue about encouraging the city's brutal militia groups. - InSight

Good guys versus bad guys is never a useful way to think about current events

Given Brazil’s authoritarian and aristocratic history, it’s likely that most Brazilians have been oppressed and victimized by their employers. It’s likely that most Brazilians think in terms of “Us” versus “Them.” And that lower-echelon workers, in the interest of their own survival, tend to band together for support. In the Brazilian workplace, solidarity often trumps competition.

Notably, the employee who curries favor with the boss is called a "puxa-saco" (bag-puller) in Portuguese, a term deriving from the soldiers who pulled the baggage of their military superiors.

(In telling sociological contrast, the English-language equivalent, apple-polisher, refers to students giving apples to teachers, hoping for good grades.)

So when a group of workers go on strike for better labor conditions and wages, the decision of how to spend a cool fall Sunday is quite simple: of course you must tie on a red ribbon and go out marching in support of those selfless sexy firemen and lifeguards. Rio’s military police and teachers have given their support to the movement that cropped up last month, and many "cariocas" have shown their allegiance on Facebook and with bumper stickers. Emails circulate, with links to sites such as this one.

The bad guy is Governor Sergio Cabral, who sent the military police elite squad into the central fire station to rout occupying strikers (after they vandalized the building), and their family members, including a pregnant wife who miscarried. Cabral was implementing a gradual pay raise scheme but had yet to lift Rio’s firemen off the bottom of the national ranking. He called the firemen “vandals."

The sweetest of intentions may gravely jeopardize Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing turnaround.

Like mozzarella cheese and pizza, it is exactly the sentiment of mass solidarity that draws populist politicians to voters. And populists, who do love their pizza (per the saying in Portuguese that everything ends in pizza, i.e. impunity reins amid corruption) sometimes actually benefit their constituents. But what usually drives the guys who adore a crowd is not the greater good but the need to maintain and expand their sway over the populace.

The Brazilian media have pointed out that the firemen’s leaders have political ambitions. What leader doesn’t? Nothing wrong there.

Brazilian firemen, like the police, have military status. As such they bear arms. Now that’s interesting. So they can shoot fires? Arsonists? Looters?

Populists count on voters with open hands and short memories, for this kind of politician rarely takes interest in anything more long-term than the next election. Lucky for them, few cariocas recall having read (or perhaps even having written and reported) this bit of news, back in 2008. Or this. Or this.

Militias, for those who associate the word with the admirable Minutemen of the American Revolutionary War, in Rio are paramilitary groups who extort shopkeepers and residents, mostly in the city’s West Zone. They’re involved in van transportation, bottled gas sales, real estate, and video gambling. They hurt and kill people. The Rio state government has been cracking down on militias, in addition to drug traffickers, as part of its occupy-and-pacify public safety policy.

So maybe they do use their guns, after all

The old Globo reports linked above, published in the early days of Governor Cabral’s public safety policy that has transformed Rio’s crime and violence panorama, say the following:

  • Jose Mariano Beltrame, the State Public Safety Secretary, intended to remove the Rio de Janeiro firemen’s right to carry weapons when off duty.
  • The purpose of this measure was to reduce the number of weapons on Rio streets and weaken the militias which dominate parts of the city, which “have an increasing number of firemen.” According to Beltrame, the paper said, “15% of all public servants accused of participating in militias that are being investigated by the police intelligence unit are firemen.”
  • At least half of the state’s active and inactive 25,000 firemen carry weapons but receive no weapons training.
  • “Specialists say that [the firemen] use their optional right to arms to be able to work [off-duty] as security guards, and many of them end up in militias. A norm prohibiting firearms would be a way to reduce militias’ firepower. Athough ASSINAP, the firemen’s and military police association, recognizes that firemen receive no weapons training, they plan to contest the norm in court.”
  • Governor Sergio Cabral fully supported the measure, and was thus quoted in O Globo. He moved the firemen from the state department for public safety to the health department in 2007. Cabral said this was to emphasize the firemen’s role as purveyors of health (lifeguards in Rio are firemen), but the firemen claim he did this so as not to hire more doctors.
  • In 2008, congressman Jair Bolsonaro, whose conservative constituency consists mainly of Rio-based members of the military, said he would contest Cabral’s move to disarm firemen.

Strange bedfellows

One of the state representatives who’s been standing on the capitol steps– together with Bolsonaro -- in defense of the firemen and their wage demands, is the highly popular Marcelo Freixo, who presided over a militia investigation and was the basis for a character in the movie "Elite Squad 2" -- which is about the huge threat that militias pose in Rio.

The transformation of Rio, which began with Cabral’s first term in 2007, must have brought discomfort to those accustomed to the old ways of doing things in Rio: personal connections, favors, and the solidarity of Us versus Them. But things are changing and not just the crime rate (more on recent doubts about the numbers, later). Thanks to the policies of Lula and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, millions have joined Brazil’s middle class. This means less inequality and more competition for jobs and education, among much else. It means that increasingly, solidarity will not get a person very far. That performance and merit begin to carry more weight than who you know. That information is more valuable than guns. That it’s time for both sides to re-evaluate and rework labor relationships.

The faster cariocas become aware of and adapt to the many changes under way, the better. The planetary confluence that brought peace and widened horizons in so much of the city may not last much longer. The world economy is still shaky and the federal government -- a key partner -- seems to be focused on its survival more than policymaking or implementation. Last but not least, populism now threatens to bring down what the state and municipal governments have so painstakingly built up in the last four years.

The ruin of which would mean, in case anyone needs reminding, more profits for militia members and drug traffickers, more off-duty security jobs for police and firemen, more weapons sales… and oh, yes, more stray bullets, murders and robberies, plummeting real estate values, skyrocketing insurance and security costs, falling tourism, and lots of nice gooey pizza.

Reprinted with permission from *Julia Michaels, a reporter who has lived in Rio for over a decade. See her blog, Rio Real, which is in English and Portuguese.

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