May 15, 2006

Brazil gang violence leaves 81 dead

By Alice Assuncao

SAO PAULO, Brazil (Reuters) - The Brazilian government
offered on Monday to send troops to the business capital Sao
Paulo to help combat a wave of gang attacks in which 81 people,
many of them police, have died in four days.

The gangsters set buses ablaze and shot up banks overnight
Sunday after hitting police posts and vehicles across the city
and state during Friday and Saturday nights.

Heavily armed police manned checkpoints on main roads as
fear gripped the city over the worst wave of crime-related
violence in recent memory. Inmates also rioted in about 45
prisons in Sao Paulo state, holding around 200 people hostage,
mostly guards, officials said.

The bloodshed was unleashed on Friday night by a powerful
criminal gang in retaliation for the transfer of imprisoned
gang leaders and members to a remote prison.

Justice Minister Marcio Thomaz Bastos offered to send up to
4,000 troops from a paramilitary National Security Force. But
he said in a televised briefing the government had no "magic
plan" to solve Brazil's violence problem.

State authorities, who have responsibility for security,
have been reluctant to involve the federal government, angering
some members of the public.

"I think they should send in the army to the streets. They
are the only people who can fight this," said Gilson Jadson dos
Santos, 18, a shop assistant.

The gangsters, armed with machine guns and grenades and
riding motorcycles or cars, have made more than 180 attacks
across the state, according to an official count.

The official death toll was 81, including 31 police, eight
prison guards and four civilians. The others were suspected
gunmen killed by police. At least 79 people had been wounded.


Over Sunday night and Monday morning, gangsters set fire to
at least 65 buses in Sao Paolo, the world's third largest city
with 20 million people.

Tens of thousands of commuters were unable to get to work
as many bus companies suspended operations due to safety
concerns. School attendance was also down by about 30 per cent,
officials said. Some schools closed early.

"No way am I leaving my kids alone on the streets," said
manicurist Nanci Rocha, 33, who kept her children out of school
and was waiting in vain for a bus at the Santo Amaro terminal.

At least eight bank branches, including the major Banco do
Brasil and Bradesco, were hit by gunfire, officials said. The
banking association condemned the violence and said banks would
operate normally.

Police say the powerful gang First Command of the Capital,
or PCC, launched the attacks after authorities transferred
several hundred inmates to a new prison 410 miles from the
capital. They included PCC leader Marcos Willians Herbas
Camacho, or Marcola.

Brazil's crime gangs have an organized structure in the
prisons and jailed leaders often control operations outside.

Sao Paulo, the financial and industrial powerhouse of this
country of 185 million people, has long been plagued by violent
crime, with frequent kidnappings and armed robberies.

It is also the nerve center for drug trafficking in Brazil
and for smuggling routes to Europe and Africa.

With a presidential election due in October, the Sao Paolo
violence was likely to make public security an even bigger
voter concern than usual.

"Now it could become the top campaign issue," said Ricardo
Guedes, director of the polling firm Sensus.

If the violence remained focused in Sao Paulo, it could
affect leading opposition candidate Geraldo Alckmin, who
resigned as Sao Paulo governor to run for president. If it
spreads, it could affect President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

A lawyer for accused PCC members, Anselmo Neves Maia, said
the actions were a "natural reaction" to conditions in the
overcrowded prisons, he said.

"This is the fuel for these actions," Maia told Reuters.

(additional reporting by Ray Colitt, Fernanda Ezabella,
Eduardo Lima, Reese Ewing, Marcelo Mota)