São Paulo has become a war zone. Every morning the radio gives last night’s body count. Since October, when the new spate of killings began, nearly 300 people have been killed in the metropolitan area. Some nights the toll has reached as many as 17.
Who is being killed? And who is doing the killing?
The official version is that this is a war between the police and the PCC, an organised crime faction which appeared after the 1992 Carandiru prison massacre, when 111 prisoners were killed by riot police called to put down a minor disturbance.
In May 2006 the PCC, or First Command of the Capital, ordered its members to kill police officers in reprisal for a tightening of conditions imposed on its imprisoned leader. Over 30 were killed and, in reprisal for that, the police went on the rampage and killed over 450 people in the space of eight days. But the PCC remained strong and, some believe, was responsible for the subsequent fall in São Paulo’s homicide rate, because it exercised control over criminal activities.
This year over 90 policemen and women have been killed in the state of São Paulo, many of them when off duty or as they arrived home at the end of a shift. Many of these murders are said to be the PCC’s response to the killing of six of their members at a petrol station in the east of the city in May.
According to official sources, the PCC is also responsible for most of the other victims, who are members of rival gangs. The killers, who appear dressed in black, their faces hidden behind Ninja balaclavas, riding motorbikes, remain unidentified. Sometimes they take the time to rearrange the crime scene, removing bullet cases andplanting guns and drugs next to the bodies.
But there is growing evidence that many of the killers are in fact members of unofficial police death squads, and that most of the victims had no criminal record, but were just innocent young men who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – walking home from work, chatting to friends outside their homes.
Last Sunday churches in the north city district of Brasilândia, scene of many of the killings, suspended services s because of the climate of ‘fear and menace’. In a strongly worded statement, the Catholic Church said that while they lamented the death of dozens of policemen, the church was appalled to hear that extermination groups formed by civil and military police were killing indiscriminately. ‘Families are mourning the death of their innocent children, killed not by a stray bullet, but by police officers who kill for pleasure, without scruples’.
To add to the climate of terror in outlying areas, dozens of buses have been set on fire, sometimes hardly giving passengers and crew time to get out.
The magazine Caros Amigos carried an interview with a member of the police force who has been investigating extermination groups. Speaking anonymously, he said that today’s violence is worse than that of the death squads during the military dictatorship, when there was a clear distinction between police and bandits. Now the policeman is also the bandit. Groups of corrupt police officers are involved in illegal gambling schemes, drug trafficking and in the mushrooming crime of blowing up cash machines – hundreds have been attacked in the last two years. They are therefore in competition with criminal gangs for the domination of certain areas of crime. He also claimed that each military police battalion had its own death squad.
Police bosses deny the existence of extermination gangs, or of police militias, but have so far offered no explanation for the deaths of so many civilians, without criminal records. The governor, Geraldo Alkmin, seems out of his depth. He announced that the number of killings was falling, just a few hours before the highest nightly toll was recorded.
After haughtily refusing the federal government’s offer of help as unnecessary, the mounting death toll has forced the São Paulo state authorities to climb down and accept a plan for cooperation, including the transfer of PCC leaders to jails in distant parts of the country and the sharing of intelligence between the federal and state police forces, which incredibly, was not happening. For analysts, federal help was too little and too late, and still leaves state authorities in control of a situation which is in reality, out of control. Among police officers, according to a military police major, the climate is one of ‘despair’.
Lists of officers targeted for assassination have been circulating. Nobody knows if the fatal bullet will come from the gun of a criminal, or a fellow policeman.
In spite of a determined campaign by the families, who formed the organisation ‘Mothers of May’,nobody has yet been brought to trial for the 2006 killings. This certainty of impunity is surely a contributing factor towards the new wave of killings. Now once again grieving families are meeting with human rights groups and social movements, churches and politicians, to organise protests and campaigns against so many murders of ‘ pobres, pretos e periféricos’ (the poor, blacks and people from the poor districts). Some even believe that the ultimate aim is not only social control of the poor districts on the outskirts of the city , but social cleansing. Together with the suspicious fires in 35 centrally located favelas this year, property dwellers in search of new areas to build for São Paulo’s booming real estate market also have their eyes on well established poor communities.
Meanwhile the governor and state police boss, demoralised and out of their depth, or worse, fully aware of what is going on and complicit, wring their hands.