Drug Gangs Bring Chaos To Streets Of Sao Paulo

By Alan Clendenning
Associated Press
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

SAO PAULO, Brazil, May 15 -- Masked men have attacked bars, banks and police stations with machine guns, gangs have set buses on fire, and inmates at dozens of prisons have taken guards hostage in an unprecedented four-day wave of violence in Sao Paulo. More than 80 people have been killed, officials said Monday.

As President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva prepared to send in 4,000 federal troops, officials worried that the violence could spread 220 miles northeast to Rio de Janeiro, where police were put on high alert and extra patrols were dispatched to slums where drug gang leaders live.

"What happened in Sao Paulo was a provocation, a show of force by organized crime," Lula said. He said the gangs' "tentacles are spread around the world, and we must use a lot of intelligence" to quell the chaos.

The violence was triggered by an attempt to isolate gang leaders -- who control many of Sao Paulo's teeming, notoriously corrupt prisons -- by transferring eight of them Thursday to a high-security facility hundreds of miles from this city of 18 million people.

Leaders of First Capital Command gang, or PCC, reportedly used cellphones to order the attacks. Gang members then riddled police cars with bullets, hurled grenades at police stations and attacked officers at their homes and after-work hangouts.

On Sunday night, the gang employed a new tactic: sending gunmen onto buses, ordering passengers and drivers off, and torching the vehicles.

Thousands of drivers refused to work Monday, leaving an estimated 2.9 million people scrambling to find a way to work. Although most stores and businesses remained open, the city's normally clogged downtown streets were largely free of traffic and pedestrians.

Parents kept children out of school, and many businesses shut by 4 p.m. so workers could get home by dark. Sao Paulo's main stock exchange, the Bovespa, canceled after-hours trading to let investors and workers leave early.

Twenty-one new killings were reported Sunday night and Monday morning, the state government of Sao Paulo said, putting the death toll at 81 -- 39 police officers and prison guards, 38 suspected gang members and four civilians caught in 181 attacks since Friday. Prison officials said they do not know how many inmates have died in Sao Paulo.

At least 91 people have been arrested since Friday, police said.

The governor of Sao Paulo state, Claudio Lembo, insisted that the federal troops offered by Silva were not needed.

"We are in control of the city, and we will preserve this control," Lembo declared. "At this moment, the army is unnecessary."

By Monday night, all 73 prison rebellions that broke out had been quelled. Police said that most of those killed on Friday and Saturday nights were police officers and prison guards, but the tally of dead in overnight violence from Sunday to Monday almost exclusively comprised suspected gang members killed in shootouts with police.

In Mato Grosso do Sul state, which borders Sao Paulo, three prison riots were brought under control.

Gilson Adei, 35, driving one of the few buses in downtown Sao Paulo, 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," he said. "We should get the military on every corner and kill them."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company