By Lucy Jordan, Senior Contributing Reporter
BRASÍLIA, BRAZIL – In the bloodiest weekend yet of the violent crime wave gripping São Paulo, 31 people lost their lives between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, Folha reported. Experts are calling the surge of violence part of an escalating war between police and the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital, PCC), a notorious gang involved in drug trafficking and organized crime.
The deaths brought the toll to at least 154 between October 24th and November 12th, according to an Estadão survey, and 1127 so far this year – already exceeding the 2011 total of 1069. Gunmen appear to be targeting police officers, as well as killing citizens randomly, with 93 law enforcers killed so far this year – seventy of whom were off-duty when killed – representing a forty percent rise on last year.
Speaking off the record, police officials this weekend told local news they believe the attacks are a reprisal by the PCC for a recent police crackdown on drug trafficking. Reports emerged on Tuesday that military police leadership suspect a document listing the names and addresses of more than one hundred São Paulo police officers has been sold by corrupt police to PCC-linked criminals for R$8,000 and used to target victims.
Formed in 1993 by inmates, initially as a protection scheme and way to demand better conditions in São Paulo’s overcrowded prison system, the PCC later evolved into a criminal network with influence in prisons throughout the state. It first gained international notoriety in 2006, when, using a system of smuggled mobile phones and pen-drives, it allegedly orchestrated a series of deadly attacks that left some 200 dead.
Some experts say that the killings do not express frustration at more effective policing, but anger at the widespread police brutality and extra-judicial killings that have earned Brazil criticism from rights groups.
“One of the PCC’s guidelines says that if a policeman captures one of its members and decides to execute instead of arresting him, then the PCC cell in the region must kill some military police,” Camila Nunes Dias, a sociologist and expert on the PCC from the University of Sao Paulo, told the BBC.
The statistics would seem to support this theory: A spike in murders earlier this year coincided with an incident on May 28, when ROTA, an elite faction of the military police, killed six alleged PCC-linked criminals in the parking lot of a bar in Penha. The following month, eleven police officers were killed – almost double the toll of May. Overall deaths citywide jumped from 108 in May to 134 in June.
“I believe that the current crisis has more connection with the relationship between police and crime, than an isolated decision of the PCC,” said Renato Sérgio de Lima, a sociologist and member of the Brazilian Forum of Public Safety. Police should “refine their control, their mechanisms of command, so that all the history and achievements of recent years in reducing homicides are not lost.”
In response to suggestions that police brutality could have triggered the crime wave, a police spokesperson said that violence in the city had many causes “beyond the activity of the police,” adding, “The PM of Sao Paulo works daily to maintain public safety in the state of São Paulo.”
As the violence escalated this weekend, churches in the city’s outskirts cancelled Sunday mass, while some schools and shops observed self-imposed curfews. The crime wave reverses a long-term trend of decreasing violence in the affluent southeast of the country and will raise concerns over the city’s ability to ensure adequate security during the 2014 World Cup.
On Monday, Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo and state governor Geraldo Alckmin formalized a raft of measures to stem the tide of violence, including authorizing the transfer of certain prisoners, in an attempt to disrupt the PCC’s chain of command. Cardozo pledged R$60 million in federal assistance.