SAO PAULO, BRAZIL – When I arrived in this sprawling commercial capital a few days ago, to speak at an international conference on “liberal democracy,” the last thing I expected was to find myself in the middle of a wave of home-grown terrorism.
The violence began in Sao Paulo's prisons. Soon, policemen on the streets also were targeted -- murders ordered by organized crime kingpins from within their prison cells. As I write this, the official death toll stands at over 100, including more than 30 policemen. Dozens more have been wounded.
Scores of police and fire stations have been attacked; also a courthouse, at least 10 banks and several bars where off-duty policemen gather. There have been reports of gangsters boarding buses and shooting passengers. Other buses have been burned. Local media report the criminals have been using machine guns and grenades as well as more conventional handguns, shotguns and Molotov cocktails.
The violence is mostly the work of a powerful gang that calls itself, audaciously, the First Capital Command (known by its Portuguese initials PCC). Enio Lucciola, a spokesman for the Sao Paulo State Public Safety Department, called their attacks this week “the most vicious and deadly… that have ever taken place in Brazil."
The PCC's goal is believed to be straightforward: to show who is in charge. Gang leaders demand respect and deference -- even when they are incarcerated. They use cell phones to run their criminal enterprises. They receive visitors in private – sometimes for meetings, sometimes to enjoy conjugal pleasures. They have come to regard these arrangements as their “rights.”
When several PCC leaders were nevertheless transferred from an urban prison to a high-security facility in the countryside, they responded by giving the order for the uprising. Police say they anticipated trouble – but nothing like what has occurred.
The PCC was founded in 1993 in a Sao Paulo penitentiary. It became infamous five years ago when it organized what was then the biggest prison riot in Brazil's history.
Police say the PCC raises funds the old-fashioned way: drug and arms trafficking, kidnappings, bank robberies and extortion. But Brazilian journalists tell me they are certain the PCC has links to terrorist organizations both of the left-wing variety in Latin American and the Militant Islamist stripe in the Middle East.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said cryptically that the gangs' "tentacles are spread around the world and we must use a lot of intelligence" to defeat them.
The gang's links to radical left and Islamist organizations have not been extensively reported by the international news media. Instead, I heard one “expert” from Harvard interviewed on television saying something about “economic inequality” in Brazil, citing that as a “root cause” of the cop-killing spree.
A BBC report cited unnamed observers who “warn that hard-line government policies” against criminals “with long jail sentences for simply belonging to a gang - are backfiring. The prisons, far from resolving the problem of organized crime, may be adding fuel to the fire.”
In a way that's true. It's long been known that when common criminals are incarcerated along with radicals and revolutionaries they tend to share skills and form alliances.
But Brazilian colleagues also blame the indulgence that has been shown organized crime in this country in recent years, particularly by judges; also, they believe, by figures high up in the federal government.
Some, they say, have turned a blind eye to organized crime because they've been threatened and intimidated. Others have been corrupted.
Still others, they say, are philosophically opposed to dealing harshly with criminals and terrorists, so they look for excuses to set them free and they grant convicts' requests for private visits and such conveniences as cell phones.
"We are not going to give into organized crime," state Governor Claudio Limbo told reporters. My Brazilian friends hope he means it and that he will receive the support he needs from the federal government. But they are less than confident.
This is an odd time be attending a conference on liberal democracy in Sao Paulo. Or maybe it is an especially appropriate time.