Gang violence falls in Sao Paulo

The gang violence that rocked Brazil 's prisons and its largest city for a week, killing 170 people, appeared to subside Friday with police reporting no deadly overnight clashes with gang members. But the fear that gripped Sao Paulo during the unprecedented crime spree remained and will likely be a major issue in this year's presidential campaign.

Police said that for the first night in a week they had no confrontations with members of the ruthless First Capital Command gang, or PCC, that launched the strikes, enraged at last week's transfer of gang leaders to a remote lockup. After spiraling upward following daily gunbattles between police and suspected criminals, the death toll didn't rise and remained Friday at 170 people: 107 suspected criminals, 41 police and prison guards, 18 inmates and four civilians, police said.

But Brazilians were outraged, and made plans for demonstrations in large cities across the country Sunday to vent their rage at the failure of politicians to crack down on organized crime. Critics said President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has not delivered on promises to improve the lives of the poor, who have long been ruled more by heavily armed crime groups than by the government but are often subject to brutal police repression.

Silva's main opponent in October elections, former Sao Paulo state Gov. Geraldo Alckmin, is also taking heat for failing in his five years in office to stamp out the PCC, which launched the attacks across Brazil's most populous state. Both sides face political repercussions from stark television images of buses torched by gang members, police cruisers riddled with bullets and funerals of police officers and innocents caught in the crossfire. Across Sao Paulo 's urban sprawl, police frisked motorists at checkpoints in an unprecedented clampdown in the city of 18 million, South America 's largest.

"This will have a nationwide impact," predicted David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia . Some blame the problems on racism and the profound divide between rich and poor in Latin America 's largest economy, home to 182 million. Brazil will only change when its wealthier white minority lets its riches trickle down to tens of millions of poor Brazilians with darker skin, said Claudio Lembo, who took over for Alckmin as Sao Paulo state governor less than two months ago.

Sao Paulo 's elite must "recognize its responsibility and open its wallet," Lembo told the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. But rather than trying to root out the causes of crime, he said, the city's fortunate "head out to the best five-star restaurant." Dozens of poor families who hadn't seen their relatives in days showed up Thursday at a morgue to see photos of 40 unidentified young men killed by police. Some also hoped to identify the bodies of slain bystanders.

Hamilton Guadino, a 64-year-old real estate agent, dropped off his neighbor, whose daughter had been killed in a carjacking. "They just came up, smashed the window and shot her," he said. "It doesn't make sense." Guadino blamed the violence on a decades-old culture of corruption, exemplified by the recent scandal that forced the resignations of Silva's chief of staff and finance minister. Nicknamed the "mensalao," or "big allowance," it involved lawmakers who allegedly took bribes to support Silva's Workers Party in Congress.

"They don't have money for social programs or prison security, but they have money for the mensalao," Guadino said. The rampage began May 12 after the PCC unleashed its fury on officers following the transfer of its leaders to a remote prison

Police struck back, killing some 107 suspected criminals in the following days, including 14 overnight Wednesday and Thursday. Human Rights Watch said some of the killings by police may have been summary executions, and urged authorities to launch an independent probe. "A thorough investigation of all the deaths is crucial to establish the truth and maintain confidence in the police," said Paulo Mesquita, a spokesman for the group, reports the AP.

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