Police strike back in Sao Paulo, killing 33

5-day death toll reaches 133 in wave of gang attacks on police, courts.

sao paulo violence 298.8 (photo credit: Associated Press)
sao paulo violence 298.8
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Police killed 33 suspected gang members and searched motorists at roadblocks as officers sought to quell a wave of attacks on police stations, courts and buses that had plunged South America's largest city into fear. While gang attacks fell off sharply Tuesday, the death toll since the violence began Friday soared to 133 as police struck back at the gangs who had rampaged to protest the prison transfer of their leaders. Officers "acted within the law, but that doesn't mean we have to let them humiliate us," Marco Antonio Desgualdo, a top Sao Paulo state law enforcement official, told reporters. He did not give specifics about the killings. Authorities said 33 suspected criminals were killed Tuesday, bringing to 71 the number of suspected gang members killed since Friday night, Sao Paulo's state government said in a statement. The statement said 40 police officers and jail guards and four civilians were also killed. Nine inmates died in the jails administered by the state government's public security agency, said spokeswoman Carolina Farias. And nine prisoners died in prisons overseen by the state government's separate penitentiary division, the agency said in a statement. Neither Farias nor penitentiary spokesman Marcelo Daniel knew how they died. With guns drawn Tuesday, plainclothes police in a suburb of South America's largest city stopped and frisked motorists in a hunt for more gang members. The crime spree showed the strength of organized crime in the financial and industrial heart of Brazil, and it sent fear rippling through the metropolis of 18 million. Police in Osasco, 10 miles (15 kilometers) from the center of Sao Paulo, were targeting motorcyclists with passengers for spot checks after one of their own was shot and killed by a gunman on the back of a bike, said Officer Vladimir Storel. The dead officer was the only policeman killed this year in the suburb of 1 million. "We're only out here because of the attacks," said Storel, surrounded by fellow policemen wielding pistols, shotguns and Uzi submachine guns. They patted down riders and checked IDs against a list of suspected gang members. Across Sao Paulo, police were redeployed in greater numbers to halt the attacks, and authorities said at least 115 people had been arrested since Friday night. But many citizens said the ferocity of the First Capital Command gang, or PCC, made them doubt law enforcement will ever solve the gang problem. Some Sao Paulo residents said they have a new fear: being seen near police officers, who could be targeted by attackers. "Now you get scared when you pass police," said bank manager Cleide Boeing, 45. "I trying to stay away from the police now." Using machine guns and grenades, gang members attacked dozens of police installations, burned scores of buses and vandalized 15 bank branches over the weekend. Inmates took over 73 prisons and held more than 200 guards hostage. The violence finally ebbed Tuesday morning, but Sao Paulo residents said they were still stunned. "It's a civil war," said Manuela Nascimento, a 24-year-old newsstand worker. "I leave my house scared and go to work scared." In other South American countries like Venezuela, Peru and Paraguay, organized crime gangs keep a low profile as they smuggle drugs abroad. The PCC, however, has focused on the booming local drug trade in Sao Paulo, where recruits are easy to find in crime-ridden slums. The violence was triggered Thursday by an attempt to isolate the gang leaders - who control many of city's teeming, notoriously corrupt prisons - by transferring eight to a high-security facility. The gang leaders reportedly used cell phones to order the attacks. Sao Paulo's two leading newspapers reported Tuesday that authorities cut a deal with the gang to stop the attacks - claims Desgualdo strongly denied. But crime experts said such a deal sounded plausible, given the growing strength of the gang, which was formed in a prison in 1993 and has since expanded to between 10,000 and 30,000 members. "I am sure that despite official denials, authorities negotiated an end to the uprisings and attacks," said Walter Fanganiello Maierovitch, Brazil's former drug czar. Sao Paulo appeared to be returning to normal Tuesday. There were far fewer reported attacks Monday night and Tuesday, compared to 181 over the previous four days. Bus service was fully restored after panicked drivers stayed home Monday over fears they might be attacked, leaving 2.9 million people scrambling to find a way to work.