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Brazilian Gang Runs Streets From Prison

August 6, 2006

SAO PAULO, Brazil (AP) _ Packed a dozen to a small cell, inmates sleep in bunks stacked four-high to the ceiling, or on thin mattresses on floors where rats and cockroaches scurry. Newcomers spend their nights in bathrooms reeking of excrement.

Inmates in scores of prisons spread across Brazil’s most populous state cook on camp stoves using beans, rice and soup brought by wives and girlfriends on weekend visits. The smell of marijuana wafts through the air, along with the occasional muffled ring of a smuggled cell phone.

In most of the state’s 144 jails and prisons, authorities long ago lost virtually all control over the activities of their 125,000 inmates, living in conditions condemned as inhumane by human rights groups.

And where the guards failed, a remarkably organized and disciplined gang has taken hold: the First Capital Command, whose leaders are accused of launching a wave of violence on Sao Paulo’s streets in the last three months that killed nearly 200 people.

The imprisoned gang leaders allegedly ordered the attacks by cell phone to block the transfer of 700 of their members to the highest security prisons in the far western tip of Sao Paulo state.

While prison conditions are atrocious across much of Latin America, Brazil stands out because its powerful underworld has flourished behind bars and has defied the government with brutal, coordinated attacks on police and simultaneous prison riots.

Authorities acknowledge that First Capital Command, or PCC, controls life inside about 80 percent of Sao Paulo prisons, with smaller ones ruling the rest. And experts say that until their clout behind bars is broken, they won’t lose their power on the streets either.

The state has built 121 new prisons over the last 20 years to accommodate an explosion in the prison population, and discipline is tough at some of Sao Paulo’s newest ones, where some of Brazil’s biggest criminals are held. These prisons are cleaner, less crowded and provide improved food and medical and dental care.

But in most prisons, the number of guards hired over the last 12 years has only doubled while the prison population has nearly quadrupled, said Joao Rinaldo Machado, who heads the union of Sao Paulo state prison guards.

And gang members who dominate life behind bars make a concerted effort to resist transfers, fearing loss of control.

Prisoners who used to bow their heads to their guards now hold them as ``virtual hostages″ with the rise of the PCC, Machado said.

Some guards augment their monthly salaries of about $820 by smuggling in cell phones, drugs or alcohol. Guards who don’t cooperate are risking their lives.

The May transfer of the 700 prisoners went ahead, but the threat of violence remains high. On June 26, police foiled a prison plot aimed at killing as many as 60 guards as they headed to and from work at four Sao Paulo prisons.

In the week that followed, suspected PCC members killed four off-duty guards near their homes.

``Prison guards are being hunted down on the streets by organized crime,″ said a statement issued by the guards’ union.

The PCC struck again last month, leaving at least six people dead in more than 100 attacks over five days. Nearly 70 buses were torched, some 20 banks were firebombed or shot at with heavy caliber weapons, and shops, supermarkets, car dealerships, garbage trucks and at least 10 police stations were assaulted.

Prison authorities have long preferred to end uprisings by negotiation rather than violence, and the inmates are apt to threaten an uprising over something as minor as wanting a guard ejected from their cell block.

``There has been a total inversion of the power structure,″ Machado said. ``The state is no longer in control of the prisons, and by threatening to unleash a prison rebellion, inmates can do pretty much what they want inside.″

Budget cuts have worsened conditions. Prisons used to provide toiletries, clothes and mattresses. Now inmates depend on visitors for most of the goods, plus food to replace prison fare criticized as starvation rations.

Ivan Raymondi Barbosa, a former police officer jailed until last year, said breakfast was a stale roll with a tiny smear of margarine and watered down coffee and milk. Lunch and dinner were small portions of rice, beans and chicken or ground beef, a leaf of lettuce, a slice each of tomato and beet.

``But the beans often came mixed with rat feces and at times even ground glass or pieces of wire,″ said Barbosa, who was eventually cleared of involvement with a criminal ring. He said he lost more than 65 pounds while imprisoned.

Provisions are brought every weekend by hundreds of visitors, mostly women, and although they are strip-searched, cell phones and even guns get through.

Officials once allowed reporters to visit Sao Paulo state prisons, but cut off access after the May 12-19 wave of violence, saying it was too dangerous. Top prison officials declined the AP’s requests for interviews.

For many inmates, some aspects of prison life have improved under the PCC’s command, according to Rev. Valdir Joao Silveira of the Roman Catholic Church’s Prison Pastoral group, which visits prisons and lobbies for more humane conditions.

Accusations of torture by guards have decreased in recent years, he said, and the PCC metes out beatings or death for prison rapists. It controls the drug trade behind bars and has banned crack cocaine, Silveira said.

The gang even finances educations for gang members to become prison guards and police officers, he and Machado said.

Silveira said the gang doesn’t force people to join, but holds many nonmembers in debt for protection and basic goods while they are jailed and even after their release.

The PCC, says Silveira, ``is forging a very strong society of its own.″

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