Death toll passes 70 in Brazil's wave of violence

An unprecedented wave of attacks by a notorious drug gang in South America’s largest city, São Paulo, entered into its fourth day on Monday, with reports of at least 20 more killings that raised the death toll to more than 70.

Masked gang members, apparently enraged at the prison transfer of leaders, hurled grenades at police stations and sprayed them with automatic weapons over the weekend, then turned their rage on the city’s buses on Sunday night and on Monday, torching dozens and stranding thousands of commuters.

Justice Minister Marcio Tomaz Bastoz said President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was ready to send troops, but told Brazil’s largest newspaper, Folha de S Paulo, “I do not think that will be necessary.”

Police said at least 72 people had been arrested.

Silva held an emergency meeting about the violence on Monday as Brazilian media reported that overnight bloodshed had killed at least 20 in the São Paulo area, adding to the official death toll of 52 released by authorities on Sunday night.

Many of the new dead were prisoners, Brazilian media said, but it was not immediately clear how they were killed.

The attacks began late on Friday night as masked men attacked bars frequented by officers and police stations, and inmates at dozens of prisons took hundreds of hostages.

Officials were worried the violence could spread to Rio de Janeiro, where the 40 000 police were put on high alert and extra patrols were dispatched to slums where drug-gang leaders live, police spokesperson Thais Nunes said.

Around São Paulo, armed men boarded buses and ordered passengers and drivers to leave before hurling gasoline bombs inside and leaving them to burn. There were no immediate reports of injuries in the bus burnings.

Bus driver Gilson Adei (35), one of few who chose to work on Monday after the attacks, demanded that authorities lash back at the criminals: “It’s absurd; the gang members can do whatever they want? They can just start a war? And why would they attack the transportation, normal people? Next it will be schools. We should get the military on every corner and kill them.”

Commerce was stifled in São Paulo, where millions of people depend on buses to get to work.
while most stores and businesses remained open, the normally clogged streets were largely free of traffic and pedestrians.

Most of those dead over the weekend were reported to be police officers targeted by a powerful criminal gang protesting the prison transfer of some of its leaders.

Assailants attacked patrol cars, bars where off-duty policemen gather, a courthouse, a highway police outpost and 10 bank branches in poor neighbourhoods.

Local media reported that the assailants used guns, shotguns, grenades, machine guns and homemade bombs.

Witnesses to the killing of police officer Jose Antonio Martinz told Folha de S Paulo that two men wearing masks approached as the officer was dining with his wife, shot him several times in the head and ran. His wife was unhurt.

“We can’t let this happen,” said Nilo Faria Hellmeister, a police officer and friend of Martinez.

A few kilometres away witnesses said two groups of men bearing heavy weapons appeared in front of a fire station and began shooting at random, killing a fire-fighter.

By Monday morning, uprisings were under way at 46 prisons in São Paulo state, Brazil’s most populous. Inmates were holding 237 prison guards hostage.

Enio Lucciola, spokesperson for the Sao Paulo State Public Safety Department, said the attacks and prison rebellions, planned by the First Capital Command, known by its Portuguese initials PCC, “were the most vicious and deadliest attacks on public security forces that have ever taken place in Brazil”.

The rebellious inmates, however, have not made any demands nor have they harmed any of their hostages, said Jorge de Souza, a press spokesperson of the São Paulo Prison Affairs Department.

He said visiting relatives also were inside several of the prisons but were “there to show solidarity with their jailed relatives. They don’t want to leave.”

For Walter Fanganiello Maierovitch, an expert on organised crime and Brazil’s former drug czar, the PCC resorted to “terrorist tactics”, launching attacks that were reminiscent of the violence seen daily in Iraq.

Eight PCC leaders were among 765 inmates transferred to a remote, high-security facility in the far western tip of São Paulo state.

The PCC was founded in 1993 by hardened criminals at the Taubate Penitentiary in Sao Paulo and is involved in drug and arms trafficking, kidnappings, bank robberies and extortion, police say.

It staged a massive prison uprising in 2001 in which 19 inmates died, and in November 2003 the PCC attacked more than 50 police stations. Three officers and two suspected gang members were killed and 12 people injured in the apparent attempt to pressure authorities to improve prison conditions.—Sapa-AP

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