Violence kills dozens in Brazil

Attacks ordered by imprisoned leaders of gang are called `direct attack' on state

May 16, 2006|By MARCELO SOARES AND PATRICK J. MCDONNELL | MARCELO SOARES AND PATRICK J. MCDONNELL,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAO PAOLO, Brazil -- Four days of violence in Brazil's financial capital has killed more than 80 people, including 39 law enforcement officers, who were victims of an underworld run by prisoners able to use cell phones to order killings, drug deals and violent unrest in prisons and on city streets.

Authorities called the attacks an unprecedented assault on public security in Latin America's largest country. One top official labeled it the first terrorist strike on Brazil.

At least 180 acts of violence against police and fire stations, public buses, banks and other targets have been reported since the disturbances erupted Friday. Uprisings were reported in 80 prisons.

As of late yesterday, officials had confirmed that 81 people had been killed and 49 wounded in the attacks. Law enforcement officials, who had promised swift action, reported the arrests of 91 suspects.

"We are not going to give in to organized crime," Sao Paulo Gov. Claudio Limbo said.

Jail uprisings are common in Brazil, but the current violence looks more like a guerrilla offensive with multiple fronts in a war between a powerful prison-based gang and the state. The weekend death toll in Sao Paulo exceeded that in Baghdad.

"It's a direct attack against the state, against public order," said Elisabete Albernaz, a specialist in public safety at Viva Rio, a research institute in Rio de Janeiro. "This is a show of power, using terror and panic to destabilize the normal order."

Sao Paolo's chief public prosecutor, Janice Ascari, called the attacks "pure terrorism."

On a day when Brazil's World Cup soccer squad was unveiled, talk of the violence overwhelmed sports chat across the soccer-crazed nation.

Fear gripped Sao Paolo, the world's third biggest metropolitan area with 20 million people. Many schools and shops closed for the day or closed early, public transportation was crippled, and people scurried to get home before dark.

"I'm afraid to take the subway: it's a very easy target," said Bianca Vaz Mondo, 21, a student at the University of Sao Paolo.

Authorities blame the violence on the prison-based gang First Command of the Capital, known by its Portuguese acronym PCC, which apparently was angry about the transfer of hundreds of gang members, including its leader, to a remote penitentiary.

Officials use such transfers to dilute the power of imprisoned mob leaders, who wield extraordinary power while behind bars. From inside, gang heads can order drug deals, kidnappings, bank robberies and bank robberies.

"The leaders communicate through [smuggled] cell phones," said Karyna Sposato, who works with a U.N. group on crime prevention in Sao Paolo. "They use cell phones for the organization of criminal acts."

Other conduits to the outside world, officials said, are lawyers and prison visitors, mostly spouses, partners and mothers of those imprisoned.

The coordinated uprisings in Sao Paolo sparked corresponding riots at 10 prisons in the neighboring states of Mato Grosso do Sul and Parana, officials said.

From behind bars, PCC members are thought to control a major portion of the narcotics traffic in Sao Paolo, which is a center for the domestic market and for the shipment of cocaine to Europe.

Institutional corruption among police and prison guards, combined with deep resentment over brutality against prisoners, has spurred violence in Brazil's notoriously crowded prisons, which contain nearly 350,000 prisoners.

The most notorious incident was a police assault on rioting prisoners at the Carandiru prison in 1992, which left 111 inmates dead and became a vivid symbol of the troubles in Brazil's prisons.

"What is happening now represents the story of the prison system itself. It is motivated by the day-to-day hate and anger that the prisoner experiences from being humiliated," said Alvaro Augusto de Sa, a law professor who was once a psychologist in the prison system.

Marcelo Soares and Patrick J. McDonnell write for the Los Angeles Times.

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