The PCC is blamed for killing almost 100 police officers this year in what is the latest round of a rivalry war stretching back more than a decade. According to official records in May 2006 around 500 people, overwhelmingly civilian, died in 12 days after the gang attacked the police. The murder of dozens of officers provoked a spate of police killing civilians in poor neighborhoods in revenge, according to human rights groups.
The latest upsurge of violence seems to have been sparked by the killing of six gang members by São Paulo’s elite Rota police unit in May. The PCC has retaliated for that action by targeting police officers across the city and rogue elements within police units are countering this with further violence. But, again, civilians are bearing the brunt of the gunfire.
“What happens when a police officer is killed in São Paulo?” asks Guaracy Mingardi, one of Brazil’s leading criminologists. “If the case is not solved rapidly his colleagues will go out for revenge. This is why we have seen a revival in death squads after several years of decline.”
“Normally they kill those they consider suspects in one way or another,” Mr. Mingardi says. “Not suspects in the killing of their colleague but people they suspect of being criminals.”
São Paulo’s police force is split between the uniformed Polícia Militar and the plain clothed investigative branch, the Polícia Civil. It is the Polícia Militar that has borne the brunt of the PCC’s attacks, and community leaders and human rights groups say the response by some of its officers has now gone beyond targeting criminals.
Whether in uniform or acting as plain-clothed death squads critics say the response now extends to any resident of neighborhoods with a strong PCC presence in often indiscriminate attacks that have left children as young as five dead.
The attack that killed Vieira was preceded by the murder of the son of an officer in the same neighborhood just hours before. The area was already saturated with police.
Residents told The Christian Science Monitor they saw officers removing bullet casings from the crime scene, something human rights groups say is a traditional practice when police try to cover for unsanctioned killers within their ranks. The local police trade union denied this, as well as the existence of police "death squads," and the state government declined repeated interview requests.
“The police just want to sow terror. The majority of those killed have no connection with crime. Their only crime was to live in crime-infested neighborhoods and these are people who have no choice about where they live,” says Gilberto Natalini, a member of São Paulo’s city council.
The violence has caused a 30 percent rise in the number of homicides in the city during the first ten months of the year. October was the bloodiest month yet with 176 deaths. It appears fear has gripped many regions on the poor periphery of the metropolis, with usually busy neighborhoods eerily quiet by 10:00 pm as people retreat indoors.