Random killings in World Cup city of São Paulo blamed on police

 

A Brazilian supermodel and celebrity chef will be helping Fifa stage the draw for next year’s Confederations Cup in São Paulo, one of Fifa’s 12 host cities, today.

The tournament is the traditional curtain-raiser for the World Cup, which kicks off in the city in 18 months’ time, and the glitzy event is the latest sign that Fifa is already cranking through the marketing gears as it counts down to its showcase.

But between the samba acts and appearances by Brazilian footballers past and present, at what Fifa bills as its “draw show”, the 800 guests are unlikely to hear any mention of the wave of violence that is terrorising many people in São Paulo.

South America’s biggest metropolis is in the grip of a war between its police force and the shadowy criminal gang that controls its underworld, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Capital Command, or PCC).

Largely fought in the slums on the city’s periphery, this undeclared war has seen a 30 per cent rise in the number of homicides during the first 10 months of the year. October was the bloodiest month yet, with 176 deaths, and the killing shows no signs of ending: last weekend at least 20 people were killed between Friday night and Sunday morning. In the city’s slums the fear is palpable, the streets largely empty at night.

The war’s true origins are as obscure as the PCC itself. In May 2006 about 500 people, the vast majority innocent civilians, died in 12 days of bloodletting when the gang attacked the police. Most observers date this recent round to the killing of six PCC members by the city’s elite Rota paramilitary police unit, in May. Since then the PCC has stepped up its attacks on the police, killing almost 100 officers, most of them while off duty, so far this year.

But most of the victims are, once again, civilians. Dozens have been killed in shootings by passengers on motorbikes or in unmarked cars who have indiscriminately opened fire on crowds in bars or groups of neighbours in streets late at night.

Residents in several such neighbourhoods are in no doubt about who is responsible, telling The Irish Times that they believed they were the work of death squads formed by police officers.

In different parts of the city they all recounted how the shootings were preceded by a police-imposed curfew and took place in neighbourhoods that already had a heavy police presence. Witnesses claim the police who arrived on the scene immediately afterwards said they saw no suspicious vehicle and removed bullet casings in an effort to destroy evidence.

“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. Not suspects in the killing of their colleague but people they suspect of being criminals.”

Children as young as five have been killed. Most of the dead have no criminal record, the usual prerequisite for Brazilian police to label someone a bandido.

“The majority of those killed have no connection with crime. Their only crime was to live in crime-infested neighbourhoods,” says Gilberto Natalini, a member of the city council, who wants to organise a peace movement to demand an end to the killings.

Police officers are indignant at the suggestion of death squads drawn from their ranks. “There are no such groups in the São Paulo police,” says Corp Wilson Morais, head of the rank and file’s association. Instead he suggests the PCC are carrying out these attacks in order to discredit the police in the community.

But Fr Jim Crowe has no doubt that death squads operate within the police’s ranks. Several years ago his parish in the violent neighbourhood of Jardim Ângela was terrorised by a death squad nicknamed the Highlanders because they decapitated their victims. Several police officers were later convicted of the crimes.

“Not all the killings are the work of the police. There is also a settling of accounts going on within the underworld at the moment,” says the missionary, who was born in Limerick. “But many of them are.”

Human-rights groups say testimony provided by police officers indicates that every battalion within the state’s uniformed police force contains a death squad.

According to Ivan Seixas of the São Paulo Council for the Defence of Human Rights, “These groups kill for three reasons: to keep crime statistics down, to exact revenge or because they rent out their services.”

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