Pubdate: Sat, 20 May 2006
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2006 The Economist Newspaper Limited


A Prison Gang Shows Its Deadly Power and Flatfoots The

RIO DE JANEIRO is more beautiful, but residents of Sao Paulo boast
that their city is safer. At least they did until May 12th, when a
wave of violence orchestrated from within the prison system struck
Brazil's biggest city and several neighbouring towns. In five days of
mayhem and retribution some 150 people, a quarter of them policemen,
were killed; 82 buses were torched and 17 bank branches attacked.
Rebellions erupted at 74 of the 140 prisons in Sao Paulo state.
Schools, shopping centres and offices shut down; transport froze. For
several days, paulistanos could not even claim that their city was
safer than Baghdad.

It was a show of force by the leaders of the state's main criminal
gang, the Primeiro Comando da Capital. Directing the violence by
mobile phone from their prison cells, they cast sudden doubt on
whether Sao Paulo, the engine of Brazil's economy, is ruled by laws or
by the mob. This is sure to be an issue in October's presidential
election, which pits the incumbent, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, against
Geraldo Alckmin. As governor of Sao Paulo until March, it is Mr
Alckmin who has carried the chief political responsibility for its

In Rio, it is widely known that three gangs battle each other and the
police for control of the slums and the drug trade. Sao Paulo's drug
trade has been more fragmented, and its Primeiro Comando a more
shadowy presence. But contrary to some claims, the Comando has
gathered strength. It has taken control of drug dealing and
infiltrated youth detention centres. It seems to be colonising the
criminal underworld, replacing individual initiative with organised
enterprise, says Sergio Adorno of Sao Paulo's Nucleus for the Study of
Violence. That generally requires the connivance of public

Tulio Kahn, of Sao Paulo's public-security secretariat, says the
Comando's fluid structure is more like al-Qaeda's than that of a
tightly-run mafia. Its habitat remains the prisons. Its top boss,
Marcola, who began his career, aged nine, as a pickpocket, has been in
jail since 1999. His followers call him "Playboy" because of his
fondness for designer clothing.

In 2001 the Comando staged a multi-prison rebellion and in 2003 it
murdered an unpopular judge. But nothing foreshadowed this week's
reign of terror. It proved that the Comando could strike at will, like
a well-drilled army, and bring Sao Paulo almost to a halt. The shock
was all the greater because violent crime has been declining. Between
1999 and 2005 the murder rate in Sao Paulo state dropped from 35 per
100,000 people to 18.

The offensive seems to have been provoked by the transfer of 765 of
the Comando's adherents to a more remote jail. An earlier demand was
for 60 television sets to watch next month's soccer World Cup. Mr Kahn
argues that the Comando may have reacted to a recent crackdown, which
included the creation of an inter-agency group to take on the gang.

But the Comando's murderous tantrum also points to something amiss in
the way Brazil punishes criminals. The approach is at once unduly
harsh and absurdly lenient. Prisoners may be denied television but can
use their mobile phones to extort money.

The jails have become more crowded since 1990, when a federal law
mandated prison sentences for selling drugs, no matter how small the
quantity. Sao Paulo embraced this with gusto. Its prison population
has more than doubled since 1994. But prison building lagged--the
system has 35% more inmates than places. Some of the hastily trained
guards became prisoners' accomplices. Inmates are supposed to work,
study and receive decent healthcare--but many do not. "Prisons are
becoming centres of criminality," says Sergio Mazina of IBCCRIM, a
research institute.

The state government has now brought calm, but is accused of doing so
with the same mixture of indulgence and harshness that caused the
trouble. It denies reports that it made a deal with Marcola, yielding
on the televisions and other privileges. A police counter-offensive
has so far killed 93 "aggressors"--hardly an advertisement for the
rule of law.

The debate provoked by the Comando's outrages pits popular demands for
toughness against pleas for a more nuanced approach to criminals. More
sensible proposals include transferring gang leaders to jails out of
range of telephone transmission towers. State officials say that the
declining murder rate (until this week) shows that incarceration is
working. Claudio Lembo, Sao Paulo's interim governor, wants to record
conversations between prisoners and lawyers, who often pass on
messages. The bar association rejects this as illegal. Galvanised by
the crisis, Brazil's Congress is considering the creation of an
intelligence service to fight corruption in the jails, which might be
useful, and the introduction of solitary confinement for up to two
years, which might not be.

It would be better to spring-clean the prisons. "A third or fewer
prisoners really have to be there," says Julita Lemgruber, a
sociologist at the Universidade Candido Mendes in Rio de Janeiro. If
the rest were punished in less drastic ways, they would be removed
from the influence of the worst criminals. That would require new laws
and more discriminating judges. To fight organised crime, police
forces need to become more adept at investigation rather than mere

Do not expect anything but tough talk from the presidential
candidates. President Lula left it to an aide to suggest that Mr
Alckmin had sown the seeds of chaos. Mr Alckmin slammed the federal
government for cutting spending on public security. But at least now
neither of them can dodge the subject of crime. 
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