The unprecedented series of attacks on law enforcement that has left as many as 74 people dead and more than 40 prisons under the control of rioting inmates marks the dramatic resurgence of a criminal gang in São Paulo. It also signals a new power struggle between police and organized crime in Brazil's biggest state, warn analysts and human rights experts.
The weekend attacks were carried out by the First Capital Command (PCC), a gang formed in the 1990s in São Paulo's notorious prison system to demand better conditions. But the PCC's audacious and ongoing attacks beyond the prison walls show they have the means to confront the state, says Renato Simoes, a human rights expert who has followed the rise of the group.
"It's a power struggle," says Mr. Simoes, reached by phone. The São Paulo congressman serves on the state's Human Rights Commission. "The PCC feels emboldened because it senses the government is weak."
The attacks began Thursday and continued into Monday, with bandits burning more than 60 buses. On Sunday, the violence spread to inmates rebelling at jails in the neighboring states of Parana and Mato Grosso do Sul.
The initial attacks were launched by PCC members angry at last week's mass transfer of 756 inmates from the state's jails. Eight of those transferred were PCC leaders. Prison officials suspected that the PCC was about to start a state-wide rebellion and they sought to frustrate their plans by moving the ringleaders.
The so called "megarebellion" was planned for Sunday, Mother's Day, when thousands of families would be inside jails visiting their loved ones. It was designed to be a repeat of the sweeping 2001 rebellion in which inmates seized control of 29 prisons and took some 25,000 people hostage.
That spectacular uprising grabbed world headlines and led law enforcement to crack down on the gang. Officials thought they had broken up most of the PCC but experts now say the group was merely lying low. The PCC has used the intervening years to regroup, both inside the jails and out.
The PCC is involved in drug trafficking, kidnapping, and armed robbery, says Bruce Bagley, a professor of international studies at the University of Miami. He says that like the organized crime groups in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, the PCC derives its power and proceeds from drug trafficking. "All of these favela groups have linkages to higher-level organized crime. For example, Fernandhino is one of the principle drug traffickers. He was captured and put in jail in Rio after selling drugs for arms with the FARC in Colombia. He's been operating out of jail with cell phones. He is attempting to consolidate power."
Professor Bagley notes that Brazil is second only to the US in cocaine consumption now. "Drug consumption and drug addiction have risen exponentially in Brazil. The fight is among these gangs and the police over turf and control of local cocaine sales, transit roots, and the laboratories they run."
While targets now, the police are often complicit in the trafficking. "Clearly, professionalization, professional training, and higher salaries are key to solving Brazil's problems," Bagley says.
Simoes has called on authorities to neutralize the PCC by eliminating the atrocious prison conditions in which they thrive. Although officials do not know exactly how many of the state's 120,000 inmates belong to the PCC, Simoes says that the vast majority of jails are controlled by the group. Many inmates are terrorized into joining the gang, but like many organized crime factions, the PCC also buys loyalty by helping prisoners get lawyers, medicine, and by handing out the best jobs and cells inside the jail. Prison wardens often turn a blind eye because the gang also helps keep order.
Authorities must reform the prison system and halt the collusion between prisoners and guards that enables inmates to obtain cellphones, drugs, televisions, and other privileges, Simoes says. "Those in charge of the prison system have to take immediate action," he says.
The PCC launched the first in a series of bloody attacks on Thursday night, when bandits armed with grenades and machine guns attacked police stations and left five officers dead. The gang stepped up their attacks 24 hours later with 55 bombings, ambushes, and drive-by shootings. The violence continued Saturday with more attacks that took the death toll to 52. And on Sunday, they reportedly bombed 11 banks and a shopping center and so terrorized people using the city's transport service that several bus companies withdrew their vehicles from service. "Getting to work took a lot longer than usual because there were fewer buses," says Eulalia Perreira, a clerical worker in São Paulo, reached by phone. "I passed two or three burnt-out buses in my 40-minute journey. Everyone is scared."
The PCC did not say what they hoped to achieve with the violence other than to show they are a force to be reckoned with and they do not appear to have an explicitly political or ideological goal, experts say. "I am pessimistic," says Simoes. "The government thinks they can resolve this by making declarations and they can't. They tried this before and it didn't work."
• Matt Bradley contributed to this report.