Gangs bring anarchy to Brazil's biggest city

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The Independent US

The violence that terrorised Sao Paulo, Brazil's most populous state, in recent months has returned, with powerful criminal gangs setting fire to courthouses, incinerating buses, attacking banks and throwing homemade bombs at police stations.

In three nights of uproar that have seen large areas of the financial capital, Sao Paulo city, set ablaze, police have killed at least half a dozen suspects, while gang members have attacked hundreds of targets throughout Sao Paulo state.

It is the third time in four months that urban unrest has rocked Brazil, orchestrated by a criminal organisation called Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), which operates out of Sao Paulo's chaotic and overcrowded prison system.

The gang has been engaged in a violent power struggle with state authorities since May, when attempts were made to crack down on the leaders of the PCC by removing hundreds of them to prisons elsewhere in the country.

The gang, which operates through prison corruption and mobile phones smuggled into jails, ordered reprisals which saw 200 people killed in police clashes in the worst wave of urban violence ever to hit Sao Paulo. Public opinion has been further incensed by PCC claims that it launched its second wave of attacks, in July, in order to secure televisions in jail so that its imprisoned members were able to watch World Cup games.

In July, they unleashed more than 120 attacks over a three-day period that ended with seven deaths and 60 arrests. Arthur Ituassu, a professor of international relations in Rio, said: "The only good news about what happened in Sao Paulo is that it will ensure that public security will become one of the main issues of the presidential elections in October."

Gun crime in Brazil has spiralled out of control in recent years, making the country among the most dangerous in the world. Murder is now the prime cause of death among young adults, who now make up the majority of the population. Nearly half of those murders are taking place in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and from 1985-05, the number of Brazilians murdered has increased by 237 per cent.

Against this violent backdrop, there is also the issue of serious social deprivation. Three-quarters of the country's municipalities have no cultural or leisure facilities; 96 per cent have no cinemas; 86 per cent have no theatre; and a quarter have no library.

The latest violence comes in an election year in Brazil, and critics of the left-leaning President, Lula da Silva, have accused him of using the unrest for political gain. Most observers feel the violence will hurt the chances of Geraldo Alckmin, one of Lula's main rivals in the October election.

The riots have been accompanied by a war of words as federal and state authorities bicker over who is to blame for the attacks. Mr Alckmin, who served as governor of Sao Paulo state until April, when he stepped down to run for president, saw his support erode sharply in the latest polls, with voters blaming him for the crisis.

The presidential hopeful has accused federal authorities of withholding promised funds for the security services in order to further weaken his challenge for the top office.

Alexandre Barros, of the political consultants Early Warning, said: "I think you are already seeing the violence taking a toll on Alckmin. He's been trying to duck it by saying it's a problem he inherited, but his party has been in power in Sao Paulo for 12 years, so it doesn't ring true with the voters."