May 19, 2006

Relatives claim dead as calm returns to Sao Paulo

By Alice Assuncao

SAO PAULO, Brazil (Reuters) - Weeping relatives on Friday
collected the corpses of suspected gangsters shot by police in
a week of violence in Brazil's business capital as calls grew
for an investigation into the bloodshed.

The official death toll stood at 152 on Friday. That
included 107 suspected gangsters, most of them killed in police
sweeps through poor districts after the brunt of gangster
attacks launched a week ago across the city and state.

State military police commander Col. Elizeu Eclair assured
Sao Paulo residents the situation had returned to normal as the
city passed its first quiet night on Thursday.

"I say to our people, the police are still in the streets,
they can go out and have fun this weekend," he said.

Brazil's most powerful criminal gang, the First Command of
the Capital, killed about 30 policeman in attacks on police
posts, vehicles and off-duty officers. The offensive was
launched in retaliation for the transfer of jailed gang leaders
and members to a remote high-security prison.

Dozens of buses were set ablaze, spreading panic and chaos
through Sao Paulo, the world's third largest metropolis with a
population of 20 million.

The corpses of more than 100 suspected gangsters shot by
police were taken to the police forensic laboratory, where
relatives waited to pick them up. By Friday afternoon, only 21
remained, 17 of them unidentified.

Chief Forensic Officer Celso Perioli said the morgue had
run out of fridges. "We've never seen anything like this. If we
didn't have the burials, they would have rotted," he told


Eclair and other officials denied that police carried out a
executions to avenge the deaths of their colleagues, but calls
grew within Brazil and from international organizations for an
investigation into all the killings.

"Heinous attacks on police and civilians cannot justify
summary executions by police," said Paulo Mesquita, Brazil
researcher for the Washington-based Human Rights Watch.

Brazilian newspapers have described the police response as
"massacres" and reported that visits to mortuaries showed many
of the victims were shot in the head.

"It's still too early to say for sure if the use of force
was exaggerated but given the history of our police, it would
not be a surprise if innocent people were also brutally
assassinated," said Carlos Cardoso, a human rights advisor in
the Sao Paulo state government.

Violent crime is fact of life in Brazilian cities. But the
gangster attacks in Sao Paulo, the financial and industrial
powerhouse of Latin America's largest country, were the worst
in its history.

They highlighted the power and organization of big criminal
gangs -- which are engaged in drug trafficking, kidnapping and
armed robberies -- and exposed the weakness of Brazil's
judicial system and security structure.

Congress is working on a package of reforms for stricter
regulations in Brazil's notorious prisons, where gang bosses
often run outside operations using smuggled cell phones. Phone
companies on Friday blocked signals in areas near prisons.

Sao Paulo state Gov. Claudio Lembo said the violence should
serve as a warning to the wealthier classes that Brazil's deep
social inequalities were tearing it apart.

But with a presidential election due in October,
politicians from rival parties are busy blaming each other's
failed policies for the explosion of the past week.