May 15, 2006

Gangster violence plunges Sao Paulo into chaos

By Angus MacSwan

SAO PAULO, Brazil (Reuters) - A wave of gangster attacks in
the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo in which at least 81 people,
many of them police, have been killed in four days forced
schools, shops and offices to close early and disrupted public
transport in the world's third largest city on Monday.

Gun-toting policemen manned checkpoints on main roads after
the violence which broke out on Friday in retaliation for the
transfer of jailed crime bosses and other gang members to a
remote prison.

Thousands of commuters, mostly poor workers, were stranded
as many bus companies halted operations after gunmen from an
organized crime group called the First Command of the Capital,
or PCC, set ablaze at least 65 buses over Sunday night and
Monday morning.

"This is war and we are not going to retreat. There will be
more death," the state military police commander, Elizeu Eclair
Teixeira Borges, told a news conference.

More than 180 attacks were recorded over the weekend,
mainly targeting police posts, vehicles and off-duty policemen.

The official death toll on Monday stood at 81, including 31
policemen, eight prison guards and four civilians. The dead
policemen were being buried in a series of emotional funerals.

The other dead were suspected gunmen killed by police. A
further 79 people have been wounded.

Inmates have also staged uprisings in about 45 prisons in
Sao Paulo state and are holding around 200 people hostage,
mostly guards, officials said.

The federal government offered to send troops to Sao Paulo,
Brazil's business and industrial capital, to help combat the
worst wave of crime-related violence in recent memory.

But state governor Claudio Lembo, who belongs to an
opposition party, rejected the offer.

"The army at this point would be something unnecessary,"
Lembo said after meeting Justice Minister Marcio Thomaz Bastos.
"At this moment we are effectively controlling the situation"


The mood in this city of 20 million people was tense as
gangsters struck in rich and poor areas alike. A multi-faith
service was held in the city cathedral to pray for peace.

School attendance was down by about 30 per cent on Monday,
officials said. Some schools, including elite international
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.

On Monday afternoon, many offices sent workers home early.
Traffic was gridlocked and taxi companies were inundated with
calls. Cell phones lines were also clogged.

Most downtown shops closed by mid-afternoon, witnesses
said. The stock exchange suspended after-hours trading.

At least eight bank branches, including Banco do Brasil and
Bradesco, were shot up by gunmen overnight, officials said.

Police say the PCC, one of the most powerful of Brazil's
organized crime gangs, launched the attacks after authorities
transferred several hundred prisoners to a new penitentiary 410
miles from the capital. They included PCC leader Marcos
Willians Herbas Camacho, or Marcola.

The gangs have an organized structure in the prisons and
jailed leaders often control outside operations.

Sao Paulo has long been plagued by kidnappings and armed
robberies. Public security has already been a major concern for
voters ahead of a presidential election due in October.

"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 state governor to run for president.

If it spread, it could hit President Luiz Inacio Lula da
Silva's popularity, Guedes said.

Lula, speaking in the capital Brasilia, said the crisis
should not be allowed to become an election issue.

"What is happening was a provocation, a show of force by
organized crime," he said.

(Additional reporting by Ray Colitt, Fernanda Ezabella,
Eduardo Lima, Marcelo Mota, Marcos Savarese, Alice Assuncao)