By Paulo Whitaker
VITORIA, Brazil (Reuters) - Nearly 900 police broke an eight-day strike Sunday in a coastal Brazilian state that had seen a dramatic increase in homicides during the stoppage, but where the violence is now receding.
Over 3,100 Army soldiers and members of an elite federal police force helped patrol Espirito Santo state, which saw chaotic looting, the closing of stores, school and hospitals and a six-fold increase in murders in the past week as police refused to work, demanding an increase in pay.
Most of the violence has been centred in the poorer areas of metropolitan Vitoria, the state capital with about 2 million people living in the region dominated by the mining, petroleum and port industries.
According to the police union, 142 murders have taken place since the strike started on Jan. 4. Security officials say most of the deaths are linked to the drug trade, though bystanders have also been killed. The death toll in the past day, however, dropped significantly, though still was twice the normal rate.
The state has yet to make any concessions to the officers regarding their monthly pay, which at about 2,700 reais ($867) is among the lowest in Brazil.
Instead, the officers heeded the call of Defense Minister Raul Jungmann, who visited Vitoria Saturday and strongly urged officers to do their duty, saying if they refused they were siding with the criminals carrying out the killings.
Wives and other family members of the police have led the strike, forming human blockades around the entrances of barracks. They remained in place on Sunday, blocking the ability of police cars to exit, forcing the roughly 900 officers who returned to work to patrol on foot.
Roughly 10,000 police in Espirito Santo remained on strike Sunday.
Under Brazilian law, it is illegal for police to strike, which is why their family members have taken action to physically prevent police cars leaving barracks. The police themselves have not tried to remove their families, leading to fears among some of the relatives that soldiers could try to remove them by force.
In neighbouring Rio de Janeiro state, family members have also protested outside nearly 30 battalions, mostly in the metropolitan Rio city area where some 12 million people reside. However, their actions have had virtually no impact on policing, which continues at its normal level.
(Reporting by Paulo Whitaker; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Sao Paulo; Editing by Alan Crosby)