President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva met with senior ministers on Monday following four days of gang attacks that had claimed the lives of at least 81 people.

The violence in São Paulo state has prompted calls for action to address the country’s increasingly organised gangsters and a wider lack of public safety from criminal activity.

The federal government offered to send troops to São Paulo, but the offer was rejected by the state government.

The attacks, co-ordinated by an organisation called the First Command of the Capital (PCC), were initially against police stations, police patrols and other authorities but extended over Sunday night to include banks and buses, which were being emptied of passengers by gang members before being set ablaze. Members of the PCC also set off riots at about 50 prisons in the state.

São Paulo state officials said they had been warned the attacks would take place on Mothers’ Day following the transfer of 765 suspected members of the PCC to a high-security prison far from São Paulo city.

While admitting there was little they could do to prevent further attacks, authorities said the situation was under control. “It’s ridiculous to claim the situation is under control,” said Artur Xexéo, a political commentator. “The situation is completely out of control and is the result of years and years of a lack of public policy.”

Geraldo Alckmin, the former governor of São Paulo state who stepped down six weeks ago to run for the presidency in October’s elections, has been credited with achieving a sharp drop in the murder rate in the state, which fell by 54 per cent over the past seven years. He also built prisons to house an additional 40,000 detainees.

But critics say that at both state and national level there has been a failure to deal directly with the problem of organised crime.

The PCC is effectively a criminal trade union, whose members contribute monthly dues to a central fund that pays bribes to police officers, hires lawyers and provides for members’ families while they are in prison.

Many of its leaders are in prison but continue to co-ordinate its activities via mobile phones. Last weekend’s violence was apparently perpetrated by PCC members who owed dues or other favours and were ordered to carry out the attacks, in which at least 25 gangsters died.

“There have been other crises and we have heard the excuses and justifications, but policy has evolved very little,” said José Vicente da Silva Filho, a former senior security official. “On the contrary, policy has gone in the other direction.”

He also cited lenient conditions for prisoners who have completed more than a sixth of their sentence.

He said about half the Mothers’ Day attacks had been carried out by PCC members let out for the day to visit their mothers.

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