Troubling uptick in violence in São Paulo's slums
The violence marks a backward step for a Brazilian state that has succeeded in cutting its homicide rate by more than half in the past decade.
Rodrigo Marcos Silva Vieira’s mother asked his father not to go to work that night. Neighbors were warning of an informal police curfew in their poor neighborhood of Jardim Carumbé on the northern edge of São Paulo, and she thought better of defying it.
“But my father said there was nothing to worry about, and Rodrigo went to help him,” remembers Mr. Vieira’s sister Beatriz Silva Vieira. But around 1:30 am on Nov. 6, a motorbike with two men pulled up outside the small bar where Vieira and his father worked, and the passenger indiscriminately fired more than 20 shots into the establishment.
Vieira died in his father’s arms, and two others were also killed. “My mother cannot get out of bed with the pain,” says Ms. Vieira.
Ms. Vieira was too shocked to speculate on who was responsible for her brother’s death, but a group of indignant local friends say they have no doubt: “It was the police.”
“Today we cannot tell who is a bandit and who is a policeman,” says one, who out of fear asked not to be named, her view shared by other women comforting Ms. Vieira.
For several months, the slums of Brazil’s biggest city have been the scene of an unofficial war between the police and a shadowy gang that controls its underworld – the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), or the First Command of the Capital.
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The violence marks a backward step for a state that had succeeded in cutting its homicide rate by more than half in the past decade. And it risks tarnishing not only São Paulo’s human rights reputation but also the international image of Brazil’s financial capital just as the globe focuses on Brazil in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup.
The PCC is blamed for killing almost 100 police officers this year in what is the latest round of a rivalry war stretching back more than a decade. According to official records in May 2006 around 500 people, overwhelmingly civilian, died in 12 days after the gang attacked the police. The murder of dozens of officers provoked a spate of police killing civilians in poor neighborhoods in revenge, according to human rights groups.
The latest upsurge of violence seems to have been sparked by the killing of six gang members by São Paulo’s elite Rota police unit in May. The PCC has retaliated for that action by targeting police officers across the city and rogue elements within police units are countering this with further violence. But, again, civilians are bearing the brunt of the gunfire.
“What happens when a police officer is killed in São Paulo?” asks Guaracy Mingardi, one of Brazil’s leading criminologists. “If the case is not solved rapidly his colleagues will go out for revenge. This is why we have seen a revival in death squads after several years of decline.”
“Normally they kill those they consider suspects in one way or another,” Mr. Mingardi says. “Not suspects in the killing of their colleague but people they suspect of being criminals.”