Sao Paulo Gang's Uprising Leaves 133 Dead

With their guns drawn, plainclothes police in a normally secure suburb of South America's largest city stopped and frisked motorists in a hunt for gang members who set off a five-day wave of violence that left at least 133 dead by Tuesday.

The crime spree showed the strength of organized crime in the financial and industrial heart of Brazil, and it sent fear rippling through the metropolis of 18 million after masked men set off the spree by attacking police stations with gunfire and grenades.

But rising official death toll figures showed police struck back late Monday night and early Tuesday, killing 33 suspected gang members in less than 24 hours.

Police in Osasco, 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the city center, were targeting motorcyclists with passengers for searches, after one of their own was shot dead by a gunman on the back of a bike while on routine patrol, said Officer Vladimir Storel of the Osasco force.

The Osasco officer killed was among 40 police and prison guards slain since Friday after the imprisoned leaders of a notorious gang ordered attacks on city streets. He was the only policeman killed this year in the suburb of 1 million.

"We're only out here because of the attacks," said a stone-faced Storel, surrounded by fellow policemen wielding pistols, shotguns and Uzi submachine guns who patted down riders and checked IDs against a list of suspected gang members.

The death toll also included 71 suspected criminals, four bystanders and 18 prison inmates whose bodies were found inside the lockups after authorities quelled dozens of prison riots linked to the crime wave.

Officers "acted within the law, but that doesn't mean we have to let them humiliate us," Marco Antonio Desgualdo, a top Sao Paulo state law enforcement official, told reporters.

More officers had been deployed to halt the attacks, but many citizens said the ferocity of the First Capital Command gang made them doubt law enforcement will ever solve the gang problem.

Using machine guns and grenades, the attacked dozens of police installations, burned scores of buses and vandalized 15 bank branches. Inmates took over 73 prisons and held more than 200 guards hostage. The violence finally ebbed Tuesday morning, but Sao Paulo residents said they were still stunned.

"It's a civil war," said Manuela Nascimento, a 24-year-old newsstand worker. "Now I leave my house scared and go to work scared."

In other South American countries like Venezuela, Peru and Paraguay, organized crime gangs keep a low profile as they smuggle drugs abroad.

The PCC, however, has focused on the booming local drug trade in Sao Paulo, where new recruits are easy to find in crime-ridden slums.

The violence followed an attempt Thursday to isolate the gang leaders — who control many of city's teeming, notoriously corrupt prisons — by transferring eight to a high-security facility. They reportedly used cell phones to order the attacks.

Sao Paulo's two leading newspapers reported Tuesday that authorities cut a deal with the PCC to stop the attacks — claims Desgualdo strongly denied. He said strong police action had stifled the criminal attacks.

But crime experts said the deal sounded plausible, given the growing strength of the PCC, which was formed in a prison in 1993 and expanded to between 10,000 and 30,000 members as Brazil became the second-largest cocaine consuming nation in the world, after the United States.

"I am sure that despite official denials, authorities negotiated an end to the uprisings and attacks," said Walter Fanganiello Maierovitch, Brazil's former drug czar.

Some Sao Paulo residents said they now fear being seen near police officers who could be targeted by attackers.

"Now you get scared when you pass police," said bank manager Cleide Boeing, 45.

In Osasco, officers shot dead two suspected gang members after they allegedly tried to attack a courthouse early Tuesday, and a homemade bomb outside a police station in the city of Tremembe, about 140 kilometers (90 miles) northeast of Sao Paulo, destroyed a car but caused no injuries. Overall, police said at least 115 people had been arrested in Sao Paulo since Friday night.

Still, the city appeared to be returning to normal Tuesday morning, with bus service restored after panicked drivers stayed home Monday over fears they might be attacked, leaving 2.9 million people scrambling to find a way to work.

At the roadblock in Osasco, housewife and law school student Marcia Barros waited patiently with her pink motorcycle helmet in hand as police frisked her husband against a wall.

Barros, 33, didn't mind the stop, but worried the police clampdown may not make a difference in the fight against organized crime.

"There's no way of knowing what's going to happen now, and that's what scares us," she said.