By Helen Trouten Torres, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – On Saturday, June 4th, 439 firefighters were arrested by police during the climax of a series of tense demonstrations for improved salary and working conditions. Over 2,000 protesters including firefighters, lifeguards, their wives and children, stormed the Headquarters of the Central Fire Department on Friday night during the rally.
Forty members of the Military Police Elite Squad (BOPE) used plastic explosives and rifle shots to blast open the main gates. The police threw tear gas bombs at protesters who responded by throwing water.
Those arrested inside were detained in cells overnight at the headquarters of the Military Police (PM) Choque Battalion before being transferred by bus to an Internal Affairs Unit in São Gonçalo, Niterói. Along the way, the firefighters continued protesting inside the bus.
“We did not want to invade the fire station, but rather occupy our home” said Sergeant João Marcos Oliveira, We are not criminals. Let’s not allow this to put the population against us.” defended the sergeant.
The PM said that “the fire department will be sued under four articles of the Military Penal Code, for rioting, damage to both property and vehicles, and for hindering relief and rescue.”
Under the Military Penal Code, the penalties for these crimes are prison terms of up to eight years. According to the prosecutor, a Military Police Investigation (MPI) has been opened to investigate the case and it is “very likely” the Public Prosecutor will offer complaint against detainees.
Firefighters in Rio receive a monthly salary of R$950. The average salary of a regular firefighter in the U.S. is $3,449 per month (R$5,437). Benevenuto Daciolo, spokesman for the firefighters stated, “Firefighters in Rio have the worst income category in the whole country. We have been trying for two months to negotiate with the government, but so far have received no response.”
The firefighters want their net salary increased to R$2,000 as well as the provision of traveling expenses and improved working conditions. “Our movement is peaceful and we are in search of dignity. We will not back down until there is a solution.”
The Governor of Rio, Sergio Cabral, held a press conference during which he referred to the demonstrating firefighters as “vandals” and “political activists” warning that their “irresponsible actions would not be tolerated.”
Cabral, in the opening of disciplinary proceedings against the firefighters, said that salary increases for firefighters have already been planned. “There is no negotiating with thugs,” assured the governor. The firefighters have responded by accusing Cabral of acting like a colonel rather than a governor.
According to PM, “the detainees case is being followed by the Human Rights Committee of the Bar Association of Brazil (OAB), the Public Prosecutor and Public Defender’s Office, and the Human Rights Commission of the State Legislature.”
However, the firefighters feel they are being wrongly treated. “I’ve spent my entire life saving lives and now I feel like a bandit. We spent more than ten hours in a room with bars on the window with no food or drink” said Sergeant Miller to O Globo Newspaper.
The Command of the Fire Department of Rio de Janeiro reported that the routine care of the population will continue as normal despite the arrests.