Archive article from The Socialist Issue 441
Brazil: 'War' erupts in São Paulo
Eyewitness report from a city in shock
A WEEK-LONG wave of violence between police and a notorious criminal gang in São Paulo, Brazil, has left over 170 people dead. As TONY SAUNOIS reports from a shocked city this 'war' is rooted in the country's corrupt and brutal criminal justice system and the extreme divisions of wealth and poverty.
"A DAY in Baghdad" was how many journalists and commentators in Brazil described Sunday 14 May. Throughout the state of S‹o Paulo Sunday was the culmination of three days of unprecedented violent attacks and killings.
Machine guns, hand grenades and other heavy weapons have been used by those involved. In a co-ordinated series of attacks, carried out with military precision, 153 assaults have taken place on police stations and eight banks. Around 150 buses have been burnt-out prompting the bus companies to withdraw hundreds more buses from service causing chaos for an estimated 3 million workers in the city and state of São Paulo.
By Monday evening, thousands were stranded at bus terminals and bus shelters with no idea of how to get home. One of the city airports has now been closed because of a bomb threat.
The outbreak of violence has been unleashed by one of the most notorious organised crime groups in São Paulo - the Primero Comando da Capital (PCC - First Command of the Capital).
At the same time these attacks took place, up to 80 co-ordinated uprisings were underway in a series of prisons and detention centres. Hostages have been taken in the prisons. Little short of a war is taking place between the PCC and the brutalised, corrupt Military Police.
On Monday morning in São Paulo, helicopters, many of them police ones, constantly flew over the city hovering like giant flies over prisons and detention centres. Most workers and young people have been shocked at the scale and degree of the violence. It has provoked widespread fear amongst the population. The normally packed streets and highways were totally deserted by 10pm on Monday night.
Members of Socialismo Revolucionario (the CWI in Brazil) driving through the city centre after a meeting were almost alone in the city centre passing heavily armed Military Police units and those with no homes to go to who as usual slept under the flyovers of city centre motorways. It was almost like driving through a deserted city.
Although most of the attacks have been concentrated on Military Police units, workers and students alike, are afraid of being caught in the cross-fire. One of the attacks on a police station took place in Taboão near the offices of APEOESP, the teacher's trade union.
In some schools; students, parents and teachers have been afraid because of the presence of police cars, which could attract attacks by the PCC. In response to these threats, APEOESP, led by members of Socialismo Revolucionario, have urged teachers and students to leave the schools while the threats continue. A mass meeting of teachers has been called by APEOESP to discuss these threats and how to confront them. Some schools and universities have been suspended. APEOESP was amongst the first workers' organisation to respond to this crisis.
Show of strength
The attacks by the PCC are a show of strength in response to the decision of the state to move imprisoned members of the PCC, including some of its leaders, to the maximum security prison of Presidente Venceslau (named the "Parque de los Monstros" - the Monster Park - by the PCC).
Brazilian prisons are notoriously brutal. Life inside for the 60,000 prisoners in the state of Sao Paulo is a modern version of Dante's seven circles of hell. Once inside prisoners are just left to rot. They are ruled by criminal gangs who are in a power struggle for control over them. Beheadings of rival gang members make up the punishment dished out to opponents.
The PCC is one of the most powerful of the organised gangs in São Paulo and is involved in drug trafficking, kidnapping and other criminal activity. Such gangs exist in Rio de Janeiro and other cities.
The PCC is organised along the lines of a military, guerrilla organisation with its own central chain of command, central committee and even its own constitution.
In some of the favelas (shanty towns) where it operates it acts almost as a "police force" stopping criminal activity against the local population but ensuring that it controls the drug market there and in other areas.
Amongst a layer of the youth in the poorest areas on the periphery of the city it is even seen as a semi-radical alternative to the state.
The PCC was formed inside the prisons in the early 1990s and some of their rhetoric and symbols were picked up from left-wing political prisoners and members of guerrilla organisations in the prisons at the time. Some PCC members even use the symbol of Che Guevara.
Yet the PCC has nothing to do with the ideas and methods of the socialist left or the symbol that Che Guevara represents for workers and young people in Latin America. The very fact that it has captured some support is because of the vacuum left by the failure of the leaders of the workers' organisations to offer an alternative and the carrying through of neo-liberal policies by Brazil's president Lula of the Workers' Party (PT).
The challenge for the new party P-SOL (Party of Socialism and Liberty - the new broad socialist party that Socialismo Revolucionario, CWI in Brazil, is helping to build in Brazil) is now to build a genuine socialist alternative.
Some capitalist commentators and right-wing capitalist politicians are using this crisis to try and smear the socialist left and link it to such groups as the PCC. They are also using this crisis as a reason to demand more repressive measures.
The growth and strength of such criminal organisations is a reflection of the desperate situation facing the most downtrodden and poorest sections of the population and the impasse in Brazil as a result Lula's policies.
In São Paulo over one million people are condemned to inhabit over 2,000 favelas in the most miserable of conditions. A further one million manage to survive in broken-down flats and houses inhabited by five and sometimes ten or more families. Here violence, drugs and despair are a part of daily life which organisations like the PCC can feed on.
The attacks by the PCC are certain to provoke a brutal response by the corrupt repressive Military Police who are preparing a massive repressive clamp down which will undoubtedly involve shooting and killing of innocent youth. Sao Paulo Military Police shoot first and ask questions afterwards.
The life depicted in the film City of God is never far from the reality facing millions in Sao Paulo. In 2000, one person every nine hours was shot dead by the police - an average of three per day. A detailed analysis of those killed shows that 60% had no criminal record.
The figures for 1999 reveal that 51% of the victims were shot in the back and more than 21% had more than five bullets in them! The overwhelming majority are black. Nothing suggests anything has changed since Lula came to power in 2002.
This crisis is certain to have political repercussions in the run up to the Presidential elections in October.
The São Paulo state Governor, Geraldo Alckmin of the capitalist PSDB (Party of Social Democracy, Brazil) is standing against Lula. Although he has stepped down to fight the Presidential election, his deputy Claudio Lembo from the Liberal Front Party (PFL) is filling in, Alckmin is certain to be tainted with this crisis and how it develops.
At the same time it appears that these attacks are being used to try and intimidate the workers' movement. The secretary of National Security claims to have tapes of telephone conversations by PCC leaders saying that they would attack public demonstrations.
These, he says, show that the PCC aim to attack activities of the PSDB in such a way that the PT (Workers Party) would be blamed with the aim of provoking greater political instability. They also, however, claim that other demonstrations, including those by workers demanding wage increases, would be subject to attack.
It is unclear if these recordings actually exist or are just being used by the state government as propaganda and as a means of trying to intimidate the workers' movement.
However, these threats, whatever there origins, clearly illustrate the need for the workers' movement, especially P-SOL and the trade union rank and file to take an independent stand in this crisis and not allow workers and their families to be intimidated by either the PCC or the state forces.
Members of SR are arguing for P-SOL to take the initiative and organise a meeting and campaign against the violence and against police repression. The workers' organisations need to take the necessary steps to organise the defence of workers and students. Workers' demonstrations must be protected by stewards.
These steps need to be part of a campaign for P-SOL that includes a campaign for a democratically controlled police force that is run by and accountable to the local community and the demilitarisation of the Military Police. At the same time it is necessary to fight for a socialist programme that can put an end to the horrific social conditions that allow organisations like the PCC to develop.
This crisis shows the need for P-SOL to build mass support for an independent socialist alternative that can offer a way out of the horrific social conditions that are the breeding ground for organised criminal groups.