155 dead as Sao Paulo violence rises

Activists say they fear innocent people may have been hurt in police strikes.

brazil protest 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
brazil protest 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The toll of dead rose in eerie silence Wednesday in South America's largest city as police who lost 40 comrades in gang attacks killed 22 more suspected criminals, but said little about how they are doing it - generating criticism from human rights groups. The overnight killings boosted the overall death toll to 155 since a wave of violence enveloped Sao Paulo last Friday, and came after officers shot 33 presumed gang members dead only a day earlier. Authorities did not identify any of those that they killed, say where they were killed or in what circumstances, Sao Paulo's leading newspapers reported Wednesday. Human rights activists said they feared innocent people may have been hurt in the strikes by police enraged by a notorious gang's attacks on officers on the streets, at their stations, in their homes and at after-work hangouts. "The climate of terror can't be turned into carte blanche to kill," said Ariel de Castro Alves, coordinator of Brazil's National Human Rights Movement. But in an interview with Brazil's Globo TV, the commander of Sao Paulo's state police said officers are now convinced they have stopped the gang attacks because most of the latest overnight shootings happened outside of metropolitan Sao Paulo and none were the work of the First Capital Command gang. Police claimed earlier they had gained the upper hand in their fight against the gang, known here as the PCC, accused of ordering the attacks on authorities after eight gang leaders were transferred to a lockup hundreds of kilometers from Sao Paulo. In contrast to earlier killings of police suspects, Col. Elizeu Eclair told Globo TV that the confrontations Tuesday night and Wednesday morning were sparked by smaller scale criminals seeking clashes with authorities. "We're seeing that this had nothing to do with organized crime," he said. The overall six-day death toll included 93 suspected criminals, 40 police and prison guards, 18 prison inmates killed in riots and four civilians, according to a statement from the state police's press office. Eclair said authorities were still trying to identify 40 of the dead criminal suspects. Critics said police were using public sympathy to justify systematic killings that may end up with the deaths of innocent people. "It's likely that the police are taking advantage of the general public outrage about the heinous crimes committed by the PCC to take brutal action against suspects," said James Cavallaro, a Harvard Law School professor who is also vice president or Rio de Janeiro's Global Justice Center. Despite the easing of gang attacks, Sao Paulo residents said they were still scared, and many supported the police's aggressive response. It would also fund a nationwide prison intelligence agency and would require cellular telephone service providers to block cell phone signals inside prisons. Gang leaders reportedly used smuggled cell phones from prison to order the attacks.