WORLD / America

Death toll in Sao Paulo violence hits 156
Updated: 2006-05-18 09:03

The body count grew in South America's largest city Wednesday as police, who lost 41 comrades in gang attacks killed 22 more suspected criminals. Authorities said little about the latest deaths, generating criticism from rights groups.

Brazil's civil police and prison guards protest as they hold a banner that reads 'Prisons, the chaos!' in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Wednesday, May 17, 2006. The toll of dead rose in eerie silence Wednesday in South America's largest city as police who lost 40 comrades in gang attacks killed 22 more suspected criminals, but said little about how they are doing it generating criticism from human rights groups. [AP]

Police did not identify any of those they killed, say where they were killed or in what circumstances, Sao Paulo's leading newspapers reported Wednesday.

Human rights activists said they feared innocent people may have been hurt in the strikes by police enraged by a notorious gang's attacks on officers on the streets, at their stations, in their homes and at afterwork hangouts.

Saulo de Castro de Abreu, Sao Paulo state public safety secretary, told reporters the identities of the criminals killed were not revealed "so as not to jeopardize investigations."

The latest deaths boosted the overall death toll to 156 since a wave of violence enveloped Sao Paulo last Friday, and came after officers shot 33 presumed gang members dead only a day earlier.

"The climate of terror can't be turned into carte blanche to kill," said Ariel de Castro Alves, coordinator of Brazil's National Human Rights Movement.

But in an interview with Brazil's Globo TV, the commander of Sao Paulo's state police said officers are now convinced they have stopped the gang attacks because most of the latest shootings happened outside of metropolitan Sao Paulo and none were the work of the First Capital Command gang.

Police claimed earlier they had gained the upper hand in their fight against the gang, accused of ordering the attacks on authorities after eight gang leaders were transferred to a lockup hundreds of miles from Sao Paulo.

In contrast to earlier killings of police suspects, Col. Elizeu Eclair told Globo TV that the confrontations Tuesday night and Wednesday morning were sparked by smaller-scale criminals seeking clashes with authorities.

"We're seeing that this had nothing to do with organized crime," he said.

The six-day death toll of 155 included 93 suspected criminals, 40 police and prison guards, 18 prison inmates killed in riots and four civilians, according to the state police. Eclair said authorities were still trying to identify 40 of the dead criminal suspects.

Critics said police were using public sympathy to justify systematic killings that may end up with the deaths of innocent people.

"It's likely that the police are taking advantage of the general public outrage about the heinous crimes committed by the PCC to take brutal action against suspects," said James Cavallaro, a Harvard Law School professor who is also vice president of Rio de Janeiro's Global Justice Center.

Despite the easing of gang attacks, Sao Paulo residents said they were still scared, and many supported the police's aggressive response.

"Now the gang members are going to be scared. Police already died anyway, and it will make the gangs have a little more respect for the police," said Walter Lahoz, a 58-year-old taxi driver.

Brazilian lawmakers decided to vote later this week on 30 measures to beef up security and reduce the influence of gang leaders who maintain control from behind bars.

The bills would let authorities keep gang leaders in solitary confinement for as long as two years, up from the current one year.

It would also fund a nationwide prison intelligence agency and would require cellular telephone service providers to block cell phone signals inside prisons. Gang leaders reportedly used smuggled cell phones from prison to order the attacks.

But President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's government said Congress should not rush into legislation. He said Brazil didn't spend enough on education from the 1960s through the 1990s, condemning men now in their 20s and 30s to lives of crime instead of giving them a future. He said he prefers to spend more on schools than on prisons.

"Either we give hope to these youths or organized crime will do it for us. I prefer that people work, earning their pay day to day with their sweat to win this battle against organized crime."

But many Sao Paulo residents say the gang problems are the result of corrupt and poorly paid police, a judicial system that doesn't mete out harsh punishment and decades of failure by politicians to deal with the problem.

Maria Jose Belo, a 50-year-old secretary, said the cycle of violence will simply continue if nothing is changed.

"From violence only comes violence," she said. "I think this is just revenge. Now the police have an excuse to kill gang members."