Crime Bosses Menace Brazil from Inside Prison

Five days of gang violence have left more than 150 people dead around Sao Paolo, Brazil. Police say they have quelled the attacks, which erupted when jailed crime bosses and other powerful gang members were moved to a remote prison.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

And now we take a closer look at a story overseas this week, an eruption of gang violence that paralyzed parts of Brazil's largest city. The trouble in Sao Paulo started after Brazilian authorities transferred jailed gang leaders to remote locations. Their followers staged rebellions at scores of overcrowded prisons in the region.

Meanwhile, the gang's foot soldiers on the outside rampaged through police stations. Some 150 people, police and suspected gang members, were killed. Relative calm has now returned to the city, but for a time it seemed the state had been outflanked by a organized criminal network known as the First Command of the Capital. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from Sao Paulo.

JULIE MCCARTHY reporting:

How did a criminal gang sitting in prison manage to wield so much power? Officials and legal scholars familiar with the group that is known by its Portuguese initials, PCC, say the organization has gained strength by being both a dues-paying trade union of sorts and Robin Hood.

The PCC, which was born in prison, doles out medicine to inmates, arranges transportation for family visits, and secures much sought-after jobs for inmates who earn days off their sentence for days worked. Sao Paulo state assemblyman Renato Simoes says by providing benefits the state largely ignores, the PCC has usurped the role of the government.

Mr. RENATO SIMOES (State Assemblyman, Sao Paulo, Brazil): This kind of right they have, it's not assured by the state. It's assured by the power of the organization. This situation makes the success of the PCC.

MCCARTHY: Criminal psychologist and law professor Alvaro Augusto de Sa has worked three decades inside Sao Paulo's prison system. Over the years he's had contact with the PCC leadership, whom he describes as highly intelligent. He says the PCC claims to seek out members from the most disillusioned inmates. Quoting the PCC, he says...

Professor ALVARO AUGUSTO DE SA (Criminal Psychologist): (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: (Translating) We recruit among those who are abandoned and lonely, those who receive no visitors, who have no benefits, who have nothing. They are enraged, and we use their violence to serve our purposes.

The PCC's ranks are reputed to include the majority of the state's 120,000 prisoners. State representative Simoes says the pressure to join is often irresistible, and after joining inmates cannot simply walk away from the organization that requires monthly payments from its members, which range from $25 a month inside prison to $250 outside.

Mr. SIMOES: If you are out of prison, receive benefits of the PCC, and don't contribute monthly to PCC, you can die or your family can die.

MCCARTHY: Simoes says the authorities do not know how much money the decades-old group of drug barons, bank robbers, and kidnappers has amassed, but their assets are believed to be considerable. Political scientist Rogerio Schmitt of the Tendencias(ph) consulting firm says the PCC may be ruthless, but they have also worked outside the prisons in ways that are winning hearts and minds. Police estimate there are as many as a half a million people affiliated with the group.

Mr. ROGERIO SCHMITT (Political Scientist): The point is the PCC is very popular among certain segments of the population. They provide safety. They provide sometimes education. They provide health. So yeah, it's almost like a parallel state.

MCCARTHY: Critics say the government has tolerated the growing power of the PCC, believing that the group's discipline kept badly needed order in the state's prisons, and reports that the government negotiated an end to the attacks on the police have caused a furor.

Authorities deny that they cut any deal with the PCC's leader, a legend among inmates known as Marcola. Congressman Renato Simoes says to admit that would be to concede that the gang holds the balance of power over peace in the streets.

Mr. SIMOES: This is the tragedy of the situation. The state cannot assure the security to the population and needs the support of organized crime to give it.

MCCARTHY: According to press reports, the chief of Sao Paulo's organized crime unit told a closed assembly hearing that the PCC was so serious and its tendency to grow so strong that fielding candidates for public office is next on its agenda. In their counteroffensive against suspected PCC members, Sao Paulo police have killed at least 22 suspects in the past 48 hours, slayings that have prompted human rights advocates to ask whether the authorities are using the moment as a license to kill. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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