Sao Paolo: Laboratory of Violence

By Ralf Hoppe

The criminal underworld in Sao Paolo wields a power that rivals the Brazilian government's. It organizes deadly violence but serves as a welfare state, while the city's wealthy have withdrawn into luxury neighborhoods and feel safe only when they travel by helicopter. Is Sao Paolo a forerunner of the 21st-century metropolis?

A Sao Paolo policeman stops a car to check for weapons after four days of gangster violence in May.
REUTERS

A Sao Paolo policeman stops a car to check for weapons after four days of gangster violence in May.

Elvira de Souza wants to kill her neighbor. She sits and smokes on a mattress in the backroom of her cramped house, surrounded by the stench of feces, cat piss and bean stew, in the favela neighborhood of Jabaquara. She mustn't rush things -- she has to think carefully about her approach. She talks about murder as if it were nothing special.

Is she serious?

Not even five minutes away by car, two gentlemen stand at a bar near the Congonhas Airport, just off Rua Monsenhor Antonio Pepe. They're in the VIP lounge, surrounded by chrome, glass and leather. Ambient lighting falls on expensive carpets.

This is the headquarters of Tam ("Táxi Aero Marília"), a company that owns hangars at the airport along with seven jets, 16 turboprop planes and a number of helicopters. The helicopters are in constant use -- they sell almost as fast as they're imported. Rui de Aquino, who owns the business, wants to double the company's fleet of helicopters.

Aquino's friend at the bar is slim, with long hair and rimless glasses. He gestures vehemently and talks about a future revolution.

"Rui, this is just a taste of what's coming!" he says. "They're just practicing! They don't just want to rob a few banks or burn a few buses or slaughter a few cops. They're preparing for the big day."

His name is Sérgio de Nadai. He's the founder and owner of a catering company that delivers 320,000 meals a day to hospitals, cafeterias and prisons all over Brazil. He owns hotels, helicopters and plantations. One out of three prison inmates in the federal state of Sao Paolo receives his meals in a canteen kitchen run by de Nadai's company, "Alimentacao com tecnologia."

They get bread and malt coffee in the mornings and evenings; beef, beans and rice at lunchtime. Lunch comes with fruit, but never with bananas -- ever since prisoners dug a 12-meter tunnel eight years ago and used a mixture of banana mush, saliva and sand to strengthen the tunnel walls. The story of the banana mush tunnel is one of de Nadai's favorites.

He's 53, but looks younger. He gets up at 6:30 every morning, exercises for half an hour and works for 10 hours. He plays soccer and golf on weekends, or practices archery. Sometimes he takes a ride on his Harley Davidson, accompanied by an entourage of armed bodyguards.

"This big day you mentioned," says Aquino. "What do you think they want to achieve that day?"

"They want the city," says de Nadai. "They want to take control of the city."

Aquino doesn't reply, and so de Nadai adds: "They want to get us, Rui."

He means Sao Paolo's criminal underworld -- the city's drug dealers, killers, tire thieves and kidnappers; the young women, malicious old men, the muscular youths and the 12-year-olds in shorts. Almost all of them are armed. They live in the favelas, or slums, of which there are an estimated 2,000 to 2,400 in Sao Paolo alone, and they're members of the "Primeiro Comando da Capital" or "First Command" of the Brazilian capital. The name is awkward, and everyone calls it the PCC anyway, as if it were a political party.

If Elvira de Souza were in the lounge now -- if she were standing by the counter next to de Nadai -- she might agree with him. "Si, Senhor," she might say, "our revolt is political. We don't believe the campaign promises of the politicians. We don't believe in handouts. We want power. We want a better life."

A deputy in the First Command

Elvira de Souza's hut in Jabaquara is separated from the street by a high wall and a heavily patched-up sheet metal gate. Harpoon tips welded onto the gate point up at the sky.

The place is infested with flies, mosquitoes, fleas, nits, ticks, centipedes, mites and bugs -- whatever can hum, drill, bite or sting seems to have gathered here. Three rooms shelter 12 people, including de Souza's two sons-in-law, people who huddle in front of the TV, sit on plastic chairs in the yard in the evenings, smoke pot and drink cachaca, a liquor made from sugar cane, out of a bottle. On good days, David buys a bottle of whiskey.

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