Brazilian Crime Gang Defies Police as Death Toll Rises

The toll of dead rose in eerie silence Wednesday in South America's largest city as police who lost 40 comrades in gang attacks struck back, but said little about how they are doing it — generating criticism from human rights groups.

Brazilian news media reported at least seven criminal suspects were shot dead overnight in confrontations with authorities, in addition to 133 people killed since a wave of violence enveloped Sao Paulo last Friday.

Officials did not immediately confirm the new deaths and gave few details about clashes on Tuesday in which they said 33 suspected gang members died in a 24-hour period.

Authorities did not identify the dead, say where they were killed or in what circumstances, Sao Paulo's leading newspapers pointed out 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 after-work hangouts.

"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.

Police said they have gained the upper hand against the First Capital Command gang, known here as the PCC, accused of ordering the attacks after eight gang leaders were transferred to a lockup hundreds of kilometers (miles) from Sao Paulo.

"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 or Rio de Janeiro's Global Justice Center.

Authorities did not immediately release new statistics Wednesday on the death toll, but said Tuesday that the dead included 71 suspected criminals, 40 police and prison guards, 18 prison inmates killed in riots and four civilians.

Despite the easing of gang attacks, Sao Paulo residents said they were still scared, and many said they 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.

Fernanda Lopes, a 19-year-old college student majoring in public relations, conceded that innocent people would probably die but said there's no other way to take strong action against the PCC, which has at least 10,000 members and dominates Sao Paulo's lucrative drug trade.

"They all need to die," she said. "It may not be the best solution, but it's the only solution."

Brazilian lawmakers decided to vote later this week on 30 measures to beef up security and reduce the influence of gang leaders who control their troops 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 the administration of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Congress should not rush into legislation.

Lawmakers "should not succumb to the temptation of panic legislation, legislation made in a moment of crisis that could deform and distort" current law, Justice Minister Marcio Thomaz Bastos told Brazil's Agencia Estado news agency.

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.

Hardened criminals created the PCC in 1993 to pressure for improved prison conditions and the group quickly expanded into drug dealing and extortion operations on the outside.

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."