The numbers are almost too much to take in: 4,100 murdered this year. This figure does not refer to a war-torn country, but to São Paulo state: the biggest driver of Brazil’s economy.
As a report came out last week showing that Brazil had seen as many violent deaths—500,000—over the past 10 years as Somalia’s 20-year civil war, the death toll in São Paulo city continued to rise.
For a decade, violence in São Paulo had been steadily declining. But recent months have seen a bloody wave sweeping South America’s biggest city—driven by what experts says is a war between police and the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital—PCC), a criminal gang based out of São Paulo’s prisons.
The PCC formed in 1993 to lobby for better prison conditions, and evolved into a wide-reaching gang involved in drug and arms trafficking throughout the state. Gang leaders use smuggled cell phones to give orders to members on the outside, while complicit guards switch off signal jammers. Clearly the system is working for them: according to police wiretaps heard by Folha de São Paulo, gang leaders recently held a 10-hour conference call to discuss business: buying and selling drugs in Paraguay and Bolivia; sending marijuana and cocaine to São Paulo; and setting up distribution to other states and potential investments with the inflows.
The last time the PCC received this much attention was in 2006, when it allegedly organized a series of citywide attacks that killed more than 200 people. That spate of violence was reportedly in response to bad prison conditions. This time, the group appears to be targeting the police—nearly 100 police officers are among those murdered, twice as many as those in all of 2011. In November, reports emerged of a document listing the names and addresses of more than one hundred São Paulo police officers that police leadership suspect was sold by corrupt police to PCC-linked criminals used to target victims.
As Graham Denyer Willis of MIT pointed out last week in The New York Times, the police killed have been mostly low-level staffers, not high-profile management who could actually influence policy. These officers are paid so little that they usually live in São Paulo’s poorest neighborhoods—favelas on the outskirts of town—side by side with members of the same gangs who may be planning their deaths. Some of them grew up together, Willis opined. The deaths seem to be warnings—a signal that any cooperation with the authorities will not be tolerated.
Police have told local media they believe they are being targeted as reprisal for a crackdown on drug trafficking, but other groups believe the PCC is responding to police brutality, corruption and extrajudicial killings. They note a significant uptick in violence in June, after police were reported to have killed five PCC-linked criminals in a parking lot at the end of May. A sixth man was arrested and, according to a witness, tortured then killed while in police custody. The following month, 11 policemen were killed—almost double the month before.
“One of the PCC’s guidelines says that if a policeman captures one of its members and decides to execute instead of arresting him, then the PCC cell in the region must kill some military police,” Camila Nunes Dias, a Universidade de São Paulo sociologist and expert on the PCC, told the BBC.
This current wave of violence shows little sign of abating, and it appears that the PCC’s influence is spreading; O Globo cited a recent report from the Secretaria Nacional de Segurança Pública (National Public Security Secretariat—SENASP)—showing that it had influence in 21 out of Brazil’s 27 states, and that membership was growing.
The violence has already raised fears about security during the upcoming 2014 World Cup, and authorities have already increased the budget for this line-item. But some here are questioning the decision to allocate $900 million on security for the World Cup in 2014 when citizens are currently dying at a rate of 10-to-15 per day. Last Saturday dozens of people wearing white masks and holding banners saying “shame” protested outside the official draw for the Confederations Cup.
"A fortune is being spent on these big sporting events, the state has mobilized for this," Antonio Carlos Costa, the president of Rio de Paz group and the organizer of the protest, told Reuters. “Why don’t we see the same money and effort being made to reduce the amount of violent killings taken place in this country?”
Embarrassingly, it was only a few minutes earlier that President Dilma Rousseff had been broadcast worldwide calling Brazil a country “with no prejudice or exclusion and where there is a respect for human rights.”
With the crisis showing no sign of abating, heads have begun to roll. The civilian and military police chiefs have been replaced and late last month São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin fired his security secretary, Antônio Ferreira Pinto, after figures showed an 80 percent increase in homicides—329 versus 182—in greater São Paulo in October 2012 compared to same month last year. But experts and activists say while this is a good sign, structural reforms are essential to tackling the root causes of the problem.
“Our system is expensive, inefficient, and empowers but pays poorly the professionals charged with maintaining order and ensuring democratic rights of the population,” said Renato Sérgio de Lima, a sociologist and member of the Brazilian Forum of Public Safety, in a recent interview. “The core of the problem is, without mincing words, political. For example, we have a congress that for almost 25 years has had difficulties advancing an agenda of reforms imposed by the Constitution of 1988 and today has several articles without proper regulation, opening huge room for gray areas and legal uncertainty.”
“Brazil needs to invest heavily, and I'm not just talking about money, in the redesign of its whole system of public security,” Sérgio de Lima added. Whether the citizens of São Paulo can afford to wait that long remains to be seen.