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Police Are Targeted in Deadly Attacks, Prison Riots in Brazil

Authorities in Sao Paulo say a criminal gang's coordinated assaults across the state killed 30, including at least 23 law enforcement officers.

May 14, 2006|Andrew Downie | Special to The Times

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — A coordinated series of prison riots and attacks on police left 30 people dead and some jails under at least the partial control of prisoners Saturday in Sao Paulo state, authorities said.

Authorities said at least 23 law enforcement officers, many of them off duty, were killed along with two civilians, including the girlfriend of one officer gunned down in their car. Five assailants were killed and 16 suspects were arrested, authorities said.

The assaults in the country's largest and most populous state were launched by the First Capital Command, a criminal gang angry about the transfer of 756 prisoners who police believed were planning a statewide riot, authorities said.

The spectacular attacks shocked Sao Paulo, a city of about 19 million people that is Brazil's industrial and financial center as well as the state capital.

The attacks, which began Thursday night, broke out like wildfires across the city and in more than a dozen towns and cities elsewhere in the state. As the fighting continued to rage, Sao Paulo residents spent a sleepless night Friday listening to the sound of police sirens across the city.

The first attacks came when suspected gang members armed with grenades and machine guns struck police stations, killing five officers.

The gang stepped up their attacks 24 hours later with 55 bombings, ambushes and sniper attacks on police officers and prison guards, state Gov. Claudio Lembo told reporters at a hastily arranged news conference Saturday afternoon.

Many of the attacks were drive-by shootings, and police stations across the state were bracing to cope with the possibility of more violence. Police cars lined up outside police stations to restrict access, and roadblocks forced vehicles to slow down. Lembo ordered off-duty officers to report for work and canceled police leave.

"We are united," Lembo told reporters. "We must not be afraid. Today, tomorrow, forever, Sao Paulo will not be defeated by crime."

The wave of attacks came after police moved gang leader Marcos Willians Herba Camacho and several lieutenants from provincial prisons. Officials believed they were planning a mass riot like one in 2001 in which inmates shut down 29 prisons on visiting day, killed 19 people and held 25,000 hostage, mostly visitors. The inmates gave up the protests peacefully after riot police entered prisons to quell the unrest.

Last week's mass transfer of prisoners was designed to avoid the possibility of a similar revolt, Lembo said. But prisoners in 23 prisons and detention centers still tried to seize control of the holding facilities.

As of Saturday afternoon, guards had put down the riots in three jails, but prisoners were in at least partial control of at least 20 more. At least 101 hostages were being held in 14 jails, according to figures published on the home page of the state prison bureau website.

The uprising came as Brazil prepared to celebrate Mother's Day, a major weekend for prison visits. Thousands of prisoners were expected to welcome their mothers and families, and a top prison official warned that some families could be among those being held hostage.

Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.

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