Police speak with a witness at the scene of a shooting that left an officer… (Yasuyoshi Chiba, AFP/Getty…)
SAO PAULO, Brazil — Renewed tension between police and Sao Paulo's largest criminal gang are being blamed for a surge in violence in Brazil's most populous state, where more than 4,100 people have been killed this year, including almost 100 police officers.
Analysts say a wave of executions of police officers has been carried out by First Command of the Capital, a two-decade-old gang known by the Portuguese initials PCC. It burst into the consciousness of more well-off Sao Paulo residents in 2006 when a series of deadly attacks shocked and paralyzed the city for days.
Peace was restored, but this year police have come under attack again and poor neighborhoods in Sao Paulo, a state of more than 40 million, are living through an onslaught of unexplained killings.
Violence had been decreasing in the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil's financial capital, which has been fundamental to the nation's emergence on the world stage and is preparing for the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament, which will be held there and 11 other Brazilian cities.
But twice as many police officers have died in 2012 as did last year, and most have been killed execution-style while off duty. In one case that has drawn widespread attention, officer Marta da Silva was gunned down in front of her 11-year-old daughter. The assailant is still at large.
The violence accelerated after police shot and killed six suspected members of the PCC in May. Twenty-four special forces officers surprised a nighttime meeting of suspected members of the gang in a parking lot, killing five of them. Officers say they were shot at, but none of them nor any of their cars showed evidence of being hit.
According to a witness, the sixth victim was executed later while in custody, and as a result three officers have been arrested on suspicion of murder, a first in the force's history. In September, police killed nine more suspected gang members.
Guaracy Mingardi, former sub-secretary of public safety, said the police provoked the PCC and crossed a line by executing men who were not fighting back.
"The ROTA [police special forces] broke a fundamental rule of living alongside criminals, that of allowing those who turn themselves in to stay alive," he told the weekly newsmagazine CartaCapital. "The reaction of the PCC was immediate."
For residents of the poor outskirts of the state's capital, random assaults on civilians have become commonplace.
"For months now, everyone in my neighborhood has known it isn't safe to be out at night," said a resident of Campo Limpo, a poor region on the city's southern fringe, who asked to remain anonymous. "We don't have any expectation that this will end until [the police and PCC] sit down together and ... come up with something."
In September, an off-duty police officer was shot to death late at night by two men on a motorcycle in Campo Limpo. Within three hours, seven civilians were gunned down.
Some of the victims had criminal records, but many had no known links to the police or the gang. In November, a man entered a small bar and opened fire, killing two men and a young woman who was a Catholic music promoter and antiviolence activist.
Though the killings of police are believed to be carried out by the PCC, it's unclear whether the other slayings are related to the conflict, are the work of other criminals taking advantage of the lawless climate, or might involve police seeking vengeance.
Marcos Carneiro Lima, chief of Sao Paulo's civil police force, said that in at least one case, the criminal records of victims had been checked in the police database shortly before they were killed, suggesting officers may have been behind the crime.
The Campo Limpo resident says his neighbors are as afraid of the police as they are of organized criminals, and that the PCC has long been active there, imposing a rough but relatively effective justice in most of the neighborhoods near him.
The gang was founded in a prison in 1993. Many believe that the 2006 violence was meant as a bloody protest of conditions there. A purported deal between the government and the gang may be responsible for order being restored.
The state government is in charge of security, and Gov. Geraldo Alckmin has faced criticism for the rapid rise in violence. He recently replaced his secretary of public security and has shaken up police leadership in attempt to stem the bloodshed.
Despite the grim scenes on the city's outskirts, life in Sao Paulo's more affluent center, where standards of living can resemble those in the United States or Europe, has remained largely unaffected.
Police chief Carneiro Lima blames the inequalities in wider Brazilian society.
"We've never had one of these slaughters in the [rich neighborhood] of Jardins. Why is that? Because it's so easy to kill the poor out in the slums," he said in the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo. "[Many] have the view that simply killing is a legitimate tactic."
Bevins is a special correspondent.