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Gang violence spreads in Sao Paulo, 81 dead

Written by: Staff

SAO PAULO, Brazil, May 15 (Reuters) The Brazilian government today offered to send troops to the business capital Sao Paulo to help combat a wave of gang attacks in which 81 people, many of them police, have died in four days.

The gangsters set buses ablaze and shot up banks overnight Sunday after hitting police posts and vehicles across the city and state during Friday and Saturday nights.

Heavily armed police manned checkpoints on main roads as fear gripped the city over the worst wave of crime-related violence in recent memory. Inmates also rioted in about 45 prisons in Sao Paulo state, holding around 200 people hostage, ostly guards, officials said.

The bloodshed was unleashed on Friday night by a powerful criminal gang in retaliation for the transfer of imprisoned gang leaders and members to a remote prison.

Justice Minister Marcio Thomaz Bastos offered to send up to4,000 troops from a paramilitary National Security Force. But he said in a televised briefing the government had no ''magic plan'' to solve Brazil's violence problem.

State authorities, who have responsibility for security, have been reluctant to involve the federal government, angering some members of the public.

''I think they should send in the army to the streets. They are the only people who can fight this,'' said Gilson Jadson dos Santos, 18, a shop assistant.

The gangsters, armed with machine guns and grenades and riding motorcycles or cars, have made more than 180 attacks across the state, according to an official count.

The official death toll was 81, including 31 police, eight prison guards and four civilians. The others were suspected gunmen killed by police. At least 79 people had been wounded.

COMMUTERS AND SCHOOLCHILDREN Over yesterday night and today morning, gangsters set fire to at least 65 buses in Sao Paolo, the world's third largest city with 20 million people.

Tens of thousands of commuters were unable to get to work as many bus companies suspended operations due to safety concerns. School attendance was also down by about 30 per cent, officials said. Some schools closed early.

''No way am I leaving my kids alone on the streets,'' said manicurist Nanci Rocha, 33, who kept her children out of school and was waiting in vain for a bus at the Santo Amaro terminal.

At least eight bank branches, including the major Banco do Brasil and Bradesco, were hit by gunfire, officials said. The banking association condemned the violence and said banks would operate normally.

Police say the powerful gang First Command of the Capital, or PCC, launched the attacks after authorities transferred several hundred inmates to a new prison 620 km from the capital. They included PCC leader Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, or Marcola.

Brazil's crime gangs have an organised structure in the prisons and jailed leaders often control operations outside. Sao Paulo, the financial and industrial powerhouse of this country of 185 million people, has long been plagued by violent crime, with frequent kidnappings and armed robberies.

It is also the nerve center for drug trafficking in Brazil and for smuggling routes to Europe and Africa.

With a presidential election due in October, the Sao Paolo violence was likely to make public security an even bigger voter concern than usual.

''Now it could become the top campaign issue,'' said Ricardo Guedes, director of the polling firm Sensus.

If the violence remained focused in Sao Paulo, it could affect leading opposition candidate Geraldo Alckmin, who resigned as Sao Paulo governor to run for president. If it spreads, it could affect President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

A lawyer for accused PCC members, Anselmo Neves Maia, said the actions were a ''natural reaction'' to conditions in the overcrowded prisons, he said.

''This is the fuel for these actions,'' Maia told Reuters.


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