Last week saw 118 attacks, including 65 on buses, just two months after a similar crime wave claimed at least 175 lives. But do such PCC activities constitute terrorism?
Yes, according to Brazilian opinion pages, one of which compared the gang crime with the exchange of fire between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. A former Brazilian army and police officer, now a political appointee, who we called described it as "narcoterrorism," comparing the PCC robberies and and attacks on police to episodes orchestrated by Colombia's Cali and Medellin cartels. The northern Virginia-based Terrorism Research Center Friday issued an advisory about the danger in Sao Paulo. Following the five days of violence in May, an Economist story noted that Tulio Kahn, of the state's public-security secretariat, compared the PCC's methods to those of Al Qaeda.
Yet the nature of PCC's demands has earned its members respect and sympathy from the ordinary Brazilians being terrorized, partly due to the charisma of one of its spokesmen, Marcos Herbas Camacho, known as Marcola. As a documentary filmmaker whose movie "Fala Tu" chronicled the lives of aspiring musicians in Rio de Janiero's favelas, Nathaniel Leclery, told us, "Everyone loves a well read criminal." And, as our police source notes, Marcola takes advantage of the security of prisoner and a responsibility of the state. The group does articulate specific demands, unlike certain international terror organizations. Complaints have addressed overcrowding and a lack of heat and hot water in corrections facilities, denial of family visits to inmates, an inadequate number of televisions in prisons ahead of the World Cup -- and the transfer of incarecerated gang leaders to far-flung jails.
Police and politicians' reaction to May's mayhem was criticized by human rights organizations. "A police counter-offensive," according to the Economist, "killed 93 'aggressors' -- hardly an advertisement for the rule of law."
"A thorough investigation of all deaths is crucial to establish the truth and maintain confidence in the police. The state must endure independent inquiries that will lead to successful prosecutions, no matter who the perpetrators are," a Human Rights Watch researcher on Brazil, Paulo Mesquita, said in a May 18 statement that also described some killings of "aggressors," who may or may not have been PCC members, as "summary executions."
The PCC mission statement we found translated online reads like a left-wing political manifesto (one Brazilian journalist told us is was a result of violent criminals sharing cell space with political prisoners), calling for "liberty, justice and peace" and stressing "solidarity" among members. As item nine reads, "The party does not tolerate lies, treason, envy, greed, slander, selfishness, personal interest, but yes: truth, loyalty, dignity, solidarity and the interests of the Good of all, because we are one for all and all for one." Could PCC develop a political arm as the Irish Republican Army's or Hamas have done? According to Heminger, the PCC reportedly supports an ill-defined political wing called the New Order NGO, headed by Ivan Raymondi Barbosa, but its goals exclude forming or destroying a state, focusing on prison conditions.
"A great irony is many Brazilians believe the P.C.C. fights for them against a government that they consider the true oppressor. At the same time, the P.C.C. has demonstrated a level of power that can only be achieved by taking advantage of the loopholes and cracks in various democratic institutions that today in Brazil appear to facilitate organized crime more than protect and serve Brazilian citizens," Samuel Logan wrote at the Power and Interest News Report . Others are
as skeptical of the gangs as they are of the government, believing the two are in cahoots.
Certainly the gap between the rich and the poor in Brazil cannot be denied, but nor can that inequality justify heavily armed criminals throwing Molotov cocktails at the buses working-class Paulistanos use to commute to their jobs.
"People were really scared," Leclery says, as "a huge city [was] shut down." Similarly, the former police officer said, through a translator, "It's absurd that criminals are able to bring a city like Sao Paulo to a complete halt," putting the immediate blame on prison authorities, but acknowledging that a long-term solution likely lies in controlling the country's borders to cripple the drug trade, putting in place drug prevention programs, improving access to education and in the big picture, addressing other social problems exacerbated by poverty and inequality. Likewise, Heminger told PostGlobal that Brazil ranks second (after the U.S.) in consumption of Colombian cocaine -- although he notes, "Such addiction is largely attributable to the PCC's targeting of Brazil's impoverished youth as consumers of narcotics."
The U.S. Department of Defense defines terrorism as, "the unlawful use of -- or threatened use of -- force or violence against individuals or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives." The climate of fear PCC has created seems to confer terrorist-activity status on its tactics.
"Although the group is not recognized as a domestic and/or international terrorist organization, PCC actions constitute standard definiions of domestic terrorism. The civilian victims of the PCC violence were chosen at random to influence the actions of the Brazilian government," Brett Heminger of the Terrorism Research Center told us.
The question now is: How will it end? And what of the political objectives? President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is up for reelection in October, and a competitor is Geraldo Alckmin, who was serving as governor of Sao Paulo until March, when he resigned to campaign. Lula, the man who casts himself as a champion of the poor but got caught up in corruption scandals will go head-to-head against Alckmin, who perhaps will shoulder a bit of the blame for the chaos in his home state. Heminger thinks the race for Sao Paulo's governor will be most dramatically affected by the unrest. On a smaller scale, our source in the country says politicians are working to pass a law that would allow prisons to block all mobile calls, since stopping the smuggling of the phones has proven difficult.
Whoever wins, our government source has advice for October's victor: "This shows incompetence of a weak government. Unfortunately it has become the norm in Latin America with the rise of populism. The issue is not to invest in security and weapons but really deal with social problems in a responsible way."
What does it mean for democracy when citizens attack the institutions that sustain order? How does gang warfare parallel/differ from international terrorism? Weigh in at the comments section below.
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