WHEN SÃO PAULO WAS AT WAR

Ten years ago, the city of São Paulo appeared to be living at war, when its biggest criminal organization clashed with state officials

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São Paulo war
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In May 2006, Latin America’s biggest city was the stage for a war between police forces and drug traffickers. Across a ten-day span, a staggering 564 people were murdered – hundreds of whom were shot in cold-blooded, close-range executions. The city became nearly deserted at night, and residents feared for their lives when leaving their houses. That period became known in São Paulo as “Bloody Week,” and still scars some of the city’s residents.

How It All Began

The war began to brew one week prior, when São Paulo’s Secretary of Penitentiary Administration discovered plans for rebellions in dozens of state prisons being orchestrated by the PCC (First Command of the Capital), São Paulo’s most powerful criminal organization. On May 11, the state issued an order for transferring 765 inmates – including’s PCC’s alleged leader – to a maximum-security prison. Following this transfer, riots broke out in 74 different facilities, and over 100 people were taken as hostages. It demonstrated the criminal band’s undeniable powers of communication and mobilization.

On the following day, violent attacks were carried out outside of the prisons, as 59 police officers were murdered in 293 total attacks. Panic spread, as did rumors of a curfew imposed by the PCC. Residents were too afraid to check for themselves if it were true or not. São Paulo, the city known for never sleeping, finally slept. Forty percent of universities closed their doors during that bloody May, and a third of buses never left their garages – after 90 of them were burned. Even the airport located in downtown São Paulo closed due to a bomb threat.

The police response was swift, disproportionate and crushing. In the following days, there were 505 confirmed deaths of civilians, almost ten times as many police losses. Death squads formed by policemen and masked paramilitary groups connected to the force undertook hundreds of executions. And while state agents disputed this, 400 bodies were found with headshot wounds from a downward trajectory – these deaths had ‘execution style’ written all over them.

Such violence displayed by a police force is worrisome enough, but to add insult to injury, policemen killed a lot of innocent young men (and even a pregnant woman) in their quest for revenge. Naturally, those 505 civilians killed weren’t all members of PCC. “What happened that month is a condensed experience of everyday life in lower-income communities,” says Danilo Dana, an activist with the group Mães de Maio, literally translating as Mothers of May – a social movement organized by women who lost their children during these days of terror. They fight for the memory of their deceased children and for the recognition from the state of the abuse.

As we have already written on plus55, Amnesty International considers the Brazilian police to be more focused on “repression and confrontation, rather than crime prevention.” It is also a force that constantly misrepresents homicide numbers. In 2013, the Institute for Applied Economic Research, a state-run organization, published a study according to which 174,000 violent deaths are labeled as a result of an “undetermined cause,” even in cases where a body is riddled with bullets. Ultimately, it amounts to nothing more than a way of masking the real numbers.

Last year, São Paulo’s state council formed a committee, also called the Mothers of May Committee, to investigate the deaths of innocent people during the escalation of police violence. It has since been fought by conservative politicians linked to police forces, and a definitive report has not yet been drafted.

The Aftermath

Ten years later, the confrontation between the PCC and the state grows stronger than ever. According to the Brazilian newspaper Estado de S.Paulo, it is responsible for trading 40 tons of cocaine and $60 million, annually – almost double of what their activity was ten years ago. The Federal Police have proof that the PCC is acting in Europe and Africa, operating in countries such as the Netherlands and Portugal.

According to Federal Prosecutors, the PCC has changed through the years. First, it was a more politicized organization, with a discourse for the respect of inmates’ human rights. Now, it operates more like a company, with drug trafficking, kidnapping, and armed robbery among its primary sources of income. It also routinely attempts to scam people from inside the prison system, using cell phones to get money from innocent people.

In contrast to Rio de Janeiro – where many criminal groups fight against one another – in São Paulo, the PCC reigns sovereign in their field. And this lack of competition, in turn, reduces the number of deaths in areas where they dominate. According to Danilo Dana, “most deaths are provoked by state agents.”

In São Paulo’s city center, things went back to normal after those bloody days. Violence in the wealthier neighborhoods is not common. But in the city’s outskirts, neglect and brutality remain issues.