Gangs Wage War With Police in Brazil

Police kept up running gunbattles with criminals across Sao Paulo on Thursday, the latest in a week of gang violence that has cast a shadow over election-year politics.

With the death toll surpassing 150, critics are blaming President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for failing to deliver on his promises to improve the lives of the poor, long been ruled more by heavily armed organized crime groups than by authorities.

But his main opponent, former Sao Paulo state Gov. Geraldo Alckmin, is also taking heat for failing in his five years in office to stamp out the ruthless First Capital Command gang that launched the attacks across Brazil's most populous state.

Both sides face political repercussions from stark television images of buses torched by gang members, police cruisers riddled with bullets and funerals of both police officers and innocents caught in the crossfire.

"This will have a nationwide impact because many other cities in Brazil have had waves of violent attacks," said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia. "Brazilians are very conscious about how violence can affect their daily lives."

The death toll of police, suspected criminals and bystanders has risen to 156 since last Friday, in violence unlike anything this city has seen before.

Amid criticism by human rights groups that officers were exacting savage payback against the gangs, more scattered clashes between criminals and police were reported Thursday. Authorities killed at least six suspects, Brazilian media reported.

On Wednesday, police killed 22 suspected criminals and lost one officer. On Tuesday, police shot 33 suspects dead.

Silva is expected to announce his re-election bid for the October vote within weeks at a time when violence is reminding Brazilians that politicians, police and the judicial system have failed miserably to control gang activity driven by a booming drug trade.

Some say the problems run even deeper — exposing racism and the profound divide between rich and poor in Latin America's largest economy.

Dozens of poor families who haven't seen their relatives in days showed up Thursday at the city's main morgue to see photos of the 40 young men killed by police — and perhaps find relatives, because the dead have not been identified.

Some also were hoping to identify the bodies of bystanders caught up in the violence.

Hamilton Guadino, 64, dropped off his neighbor, whose daughter had been killed in a carjacking.

"They just came up, smashed the window and shot her," he said. "It doesn't make sense."

Guadino blamed Sao Paulo's violence on a decades-old culture of corruption, exemplified by the scandal that forced the resignations of Silva's chief of staff and finance minister. The scandal involved lawmakers who allegedly were bribed to support the ruling party in Congress.

"They don't have money for social programs or prison security, but they have money for the mensalao," he said. "I guess it's our fault, we vote for them. But none of them are worth anything."

In a cemetery in a working class neighborhood miles from Sao Paulo's center, distraught relatives and friends of 17-year-old Wesley Rodriguero buried him in a simple wood casket painted black.

They said he was shot three times in the back by police while running away Tuesday from a shootout he had stumbled across. Police have released no details about any of the killings by their officers.

Just a few minutes after the casket was lowered into the ground, six officers pulled up to the cemetery with shotguns and pistols drawn, and frisked about 20 of the dead man's male relatives and friends.

An officer said they were told the mourners brought guns to the cemetery. Police left after finding none.

"There's no justice," fumed Rodriguero's older sister, Daniela. "This war will never end."