May 17, 2006 9:15 pm

Gang leaders take Brazil hostage from inside jail

Life in São Paulo returned to something like normal by the middle of this week after prison riots and attacks on police and property orchestrated by organised crime left 132 people dead and 53 injured between Friday night and Tuesday morning.

But many wondered what kind of normality it was. The handling of events by authorities, and especially the way they were brought to an end, suggested a lack of control amounting to a crisis of governability.

Although for the families of the victims the impact was tragic, relatively few people were touched directly by the incidents.More wide-reaching was the fear that gripped the city on Monday, as public transport collapsed – at least 80 buses were set on fire – schools and universities closed, businesses sent staff home early and rumours flashed across the internet and telephone lines that schools were being machine-gunned, that a mass attack was being prepared for 6pm that evening, and that the police or the attackers themselves would impose an 8pm curfew.

Among hundreds of testimonies was that of Beatriz Segal, an actress, who sum­med up the mood: “I feel extremely vulnerable. It’s obvious that we are not at peace. Things will only get worse.”

Most eloquent of all was an interview broadcast on Radio Record of São Paulo on Tuesday evening. Reporter Dante Rodrigues made contact with Orlando Mota Junior, known as Macarrão, a leader of the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital, or PCC), the criminal organisation that orchestrated the riots and attacks.

Two things were remarkable about the interview. First, Macarrão was speaking on a mobile telephone from inside prison. Second, he appeared to confirm what many feared: the attacks ended because the PCC called them off after reaching a deal with state authorities.

“The whole situation has changed,” says Bruno Paes Manso, a researcher into organised crime. “For the government to negotiate and give way is the worst possible outcome. If I was a bandit, I would join the PCC immediately. They’ve shown just how powerful they are.”

State authorities denied having made any concessions. But they admitted having flown a lawyer and three senior police, prison and judicial officials to a meeting in prison with Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, known as Marcola, the PCC’s absolute leader.

Authorities say the meeting took place so that the lawyer could assure Marcola’s family that he and other leaders had not been harmed. But Macarrão and others familiar with the negotiations say other demands were met: that riot police would not enter the prisons under rebellion and that restrictions on PCC prisoners, such as a ban on visits and time outside their cells, would be relaxed.

If true, the allegations confirm the rising power of the PCC to direct events inside and outside the São Paulo state prisons system – a reflection of the situation elsewhere in Brazil, especially in Rio de Janeiro, where powerful gangs formed in prisons two decades ago wield power over life in prison and in the city’s favelas (shantytowns).

The PCC was formed in 1993 after riot police put down a rebellion at the notorious Carandiru prison in São Paulo and 111 prisoners were killed. It protested against what Walter Maierovitch, a former senior security official, calls the “inhuman overcrowding” of Brazil’s prisons, with prisoners sleeping in shifts for lack of bunk space and diseases such at tuberculosis rampant.

The PCC grew slowly at first but expanded rapidly under Marcola’s leadership after 2002. Authorities continued to deny its existence but it was already showing its power. In 2001 it had caused riots at 29 prisons. In 2003 it ordered the murder of Machado Dias, a judge who had sent its members to maximum-security jails.

As the PCC’s statutes make clear, it was dedicated from the start not only to fighting for better conditions but also to imposing itself on prison authorities and to providing support services to prisoners and to active criminals on the outside. Members pay monthly dues and a percentage of their criminal earnings; its income is estimated at R$1m ($467,000, €367,000, £248,000) a month.

The PCC also has political ambitions, of sorts. Before general elections in 2002 and again this year it has announced its intention to finance candidates, although no candidate has ever admitted receiving its money.

Although its political aims are not clearly stated – it says it wants “liberty, justice and peace” – it would be a mistake, says Mr Paes Manso, to underestimate its political intelligence. “It is no coincidence that the PCC has done this now, at the start of campaigning for October’s elections,” he says.

If the PCC wanted to embarrass presidential candidates, it has succeeded. Geraldo Alckmin, the former governor of São Paulo state, stepped down in March to run for the presidency. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Folha de S. Paulo, a daily newspaper, 37 per cent of people blamed him for the weekend’s events.

Even more, 39 per cent, blamed President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, while 55 per cent blamed the judicial authorities.

Such attitudes are not surprising. Mr Maierovitch says authorities have consistently made concessions to the PCC to be able to demonstrate to the public that it is under control or has gone away. “The sad reality,” he says, “is that the state is now the prisoner of the PCC.”

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