Sao Paolo Laboratory of Violence

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the Brazilian government's. It organizes deadly violence but serves as a welfare state, while the city's wealthy have withdrawn into luxury neighborhoods and feel safe only when they travel by helicopter.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?
Von Ralf Hoppe

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.

Feeding the family with hold-ups

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.

Elvira feeds her family by arranging small hold-ups (which she doesn't carry out herself) and, more importantly, by dealing drugs, heroin and cocaine. Sometimes she drives to the Bolivian border to stock up her supply. But most of the time she just organizes her sales transactions in Sao Paolo. She calls the young middle-class men who are her customers "playboys." Elvira needs them, looks down on them, hates them.

She likes to talk, but not about everything. The storage room next to her bedroom is full of laptops, monitors, and keyboards. Some 200 computer accessories are stacked haphazardly from floor to ceiling and covered in a thick layer of dust. Next to these stacks are two boxes full of plugs and electricity cables. Elvira has no idea how to wire up a computer.

Tell us, Elvira, where is all this computer equipment from?

"That stuff?" She laughs. "It was just there one day. Just like that!" She snaps her fingers, coughs, hunches forward.

Elvira holds an intermediate position in the PCC's hierarchy. She's in charge of a small section of this favela, her own street. The thugs, drug dealers and small-time gangsters who turn up here don't pay rent, but they're accountable to her and pay her a fee, just as she herself lives here for free but answers to two bosses in charge of this favela.

Elvira's mother was white, her father black. "He was a bastard," she says, "a scumbag, like all men." She laughs.

Are there decent men too, Elvira?

She thinks about it. "Yes," she answers, "but they're locked up in prison, like Fumega, my husband. And since he's too good for this world, he's going to stay in prison until he rots."

Why was he put in prison?

"Armed robbery."

She shrugs her shoulders. She has dark curly hair; she's missing three teeth and holds her hand in front of her mouth when she laughs. Her laughter sounds hoarse. In 18 years Elvira has given birth to 10 children from seven different fathers. One of her children, a 14-year-old boy, was shot a few weeks ago.

Shot by the police?

"No, no," she says. "The neighbors killed him -- I've already found out that much. They live just one street away. We even say hello when we see each other. They don't know that I know they killed my son."

"I loved him," she says. "I'll take revenge. It's just a shame I don't have a picture." She coughs and spits on the floor.

The PCC's year of violence

For Sao Paolo, 2006 is the year of violence. Never before have there been such intense and protracted battles between gangsters and the police, concentrated attacks that paralyzed the giant city for days. Buses were set on fire, hand grenades thrown from passing cars; gangs of masked looters roamed the streets at night. There was a power struggle within the PCC as well. An estimated 180 people died during the unrest, which began in May, spread throughout the country and has flared up again sporadically since.

All this violence amounted to a challenge to the Brazilian government by the criminal underground. According to people in the favelas, it was high time. Sao Paolo proper has 10 million inhabitants; it's the sixth-largest city in the world, the largest in the southern hemisphere. In this chaos of wealth and sordid misery, gleaming skyscrapers and gray huts, the criminal underground has issued its call to arms, and the upper classes have retreated deeper and deeper into enclaves of wealth -- places like Tam's VIP lounge with its muted lighting, where businessmen like Aquino and de Nadai chat about the latest shoot-outs on the street and about their acquisition of a new helicopter, the Bell 430, which is bigger than the Bell 429, a model Aquino already owns.

Nowhere in the world are there more helicopter landing pads than in Sao Paolo. No other city can boast a shopping center as exclusive as Daslu, where visitors are surrounded by flocks of liveried porters, tended to by small groups of picture-pretty young women and treated to champagne or Blue Label whiskey. What shopping center besides Daslu has its own ballroom and a helipad on the roof? Those who don't yet own a helicopter can buy one on the third floor of the building. Silken men's socks cost $180.

And the Rua Coliseu is just around the corner. Anyone standing at one end of this street should think twice about whether they want to keep walking, unless they've announced themselves to a drug dealer by mobile phone. In that case, they'll be met and tended to almost like a customer at Daslu.

Hold-ups have always belonged to Sao Paolo's folklore, an everyday risk that stewardesses, bus drivers and workmen are exposed to no less than the rich. Brazilians have the gift of casualness, and they treat hold-up stories as party talk. "The other day, in the car park, at the traffic light…"

Gangsters treat the money they rob as a kind of social measure, an enforced redistribution of the country's wealth, from people like Sergio de Nadai to those like Elvira da Souza.

A referendum held in October of last year saw 64 percent of voters rejecting a ban on gun sales. The police estimate that Brazilian households possess a total of 17 million revolvers, shotguns, pistols and machine guns. The number of people shot per year is 36,000.

The criminal tipping point

At the time of last year's referendum, though, things were improving. According to a study carried out by the University of Sao Paolo, the number of homicides had decreased between 1999 and 2004. During this period the PCC grew stronger; it developed a hierarchy and gave itself a solid organizational structure.

Then came the year 2006, and with it the "winter of death," as journalists dubbed the months between May and July. No one had expected anything like it; everyone was astounded by the outbreak of violence.

Except for one person.

A Cassandra of crime

Professor Walter Maierowitsch has worked in almost every field related to crime-fighting. He's been a professor of penal law in Sao Paolo, he's trained magistrates and attorneys. He's advised the president, and he's founded his own institute, named after Giovanni Falcone, a Sicilian attorney murdered by the mafia. He's issued warnings for years about new Brazilian mafia organizations -- the "Comando Vermelho" or "Red Commando," the "Amigos dos Amigos" in Rio de Janeiro, and the PCC in Sao Paolo.

He lives like a recluse in Villa Madalena, a former artist's neighborhood now populated by the bourgeoisie. Sycamores, bougainvillea and eucalyptus line the streets, and sometimes you catch a glimpse of the colonial-style villas behind the hedges and fences.

The fence in front of his villa has been secured with steel plates, and the upper edge of its green steel gate is a honed blade. Ring the bell and you'll hear dogs bark savagely, in a way that makes a journalist think they've had practice mauling visitors. The men at the gate need 20 minutes to verify everything and calm the dogs. Then Maierowitsch asks his visitor into the winter garden. He presents himself as an elegant melancholic. He wears a green silk tie despite the heat and asks the maid to bring coffee, lemonade and French pastries.

He had warned about the day the new mafia would strike. He made suggestions for reforming prisons and the executive branch of government, and he had ideas about the social role of the state.

How many of your suggestions were put into practice, Professor Maierowitsch?

"Oh, shockingly few of them," he says, smiling his melancholy smile. Then he leans back and begins to tell stories.

The underworld's revolt needed a spark to set it off, and the spark was provided by a man responsible for the sound system in the Brazilian parliament. In the spring of this year he recorded a discussion between two high-ranking policemen, who laid out their strategy for dealing with the PCC. They would transfer incarcerated gang bosses to a high-security prison called Presidente Venceslau, about 600 kilometres (373 miles) from Sao Paolo. The janitor transferred this recording to a pair of CDs and sold them for 200 reais ($89). Equipped with mobile phones, the PCC bosses listened to this conversation from their prison cells, during a kind of conference call. They didn't like what they heard, and organized an attack.

The result, Maierowitsch says, was a simultaneous uprising in 73 prisons. There were attacks on police stations, sometimes with machine guns, explosives and hand grenades. During a second wave of unrest, public buses were ignited, probably by the owners of illegal private bus companies, who used the opportunity to get rid of the competition. Snipers shot policemen when they returned home to their apartments in the evening. The city burned and drowned in blood for five days. The overall number of attacks was somewhere between 800 and 1,000, and 180 people were killed. Maierowitsch calls it a "demonstration" -- the PCC wanted to demonstrate what it could do.

Originally, the "Primeiro Comando da Capital" was a soccer team. The inmates of Taubaté prison, 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Sao Paolo, were allowed to play soccer in the courtyard. The teams consisted of eight inmates each, and one of these teams kept winning the prison cup because no one dared win against them. They were the eight most dangerous and most intelligent gangsters in Brazil. That was 13 years ago.

Now, Maierowitsch believes that 90 percent of all inmates detained in the urban prisons of Sao Paolo are PCC affiliates. Otherwise, he says, they couldn't survive. He estimates that the PCC has as many as 100,000 members throughout the federal state of Sao Paolo, including small-time gangsters like Elvira de Souza.

The monthly volume of the PCC's economic transactions is more than a million reais, Maierowitsch says, because every inmate with a savings pays the organization 150 reais ($64) a month. Prisoners on furlough pay 200 reais ($85). Those released from prison pay 300 reais ($130), in addition to yielding a tenth of their earnings to the PCC. In return, they get a kind of guarantee letter -- like an auto-club letter, promising a line of services.

The shadow welfare state

The membership process starts as soon as someone goes to jail. PCC members visit the new inmate and make an offer, while members on the outside contact the inmate's relatives. When the inmate joins up, his family is protected by the PCC. Doctors are found for ailing relatives, support is given to female family members, wrongs suffered by the family are avenged. The inmate can look forward to spending his time in prison in relative safety, but he or she can't leave the organization.

The gangsters, Maierowitsch says, play the role of a welfare state. That's clever in a country where politicians are suspected mainly of being incompetent and corrupt, he adds. An estimated 20 percent of Sao Paolo's population live in favelas.

The PCC system was perhaps invented, but in any case perfected, by its current leader, a man named Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, a.k.a. "Marcola." He took over sometime around 2002. He's 38 years old and already a legend, the object of romantic projections fostered by misery. There are hip hop songs about Marcola. He's said to read a book every day -- Nietzsche, lawbooks, Schopenhauer. He's a genius, people in the favelas say, a Che Guevara for killers.

"This city is ours"

Elvira de Souza says she saw Marcola once. She calls him vain but beautiful. He loves the poor, she says.

Maierowitsch draws a pyramid: Marcola is on top, followed by roughly 80 "leading officials" who command an estimated 4,000 "sergeants." Then there's the base of the pyramid, which is broad and consists of sympathizers who pay the organization out of fear or respect.

Those who want to rise in the PCC hierarchy are given two "godfathers," look after that person all their lives. Elvira's godfathers are the favela-bosses from Javaquara. Elvira was baptized with a glass of liquor poured over her head. Then she received an elaborate handwritten membership certificate, a 16-point code of conduct that talks a lot about honor.

Then Elvira no longer had to pay rent. She entered a six-week training course for nurses, where she specialized in treating gunshot wounds and had to assist a surgeon with operations, as well as caring for fever patients. In return, her husband Fumega was transferred to a better prison cell. The new one had about 20 inmates in it, instead of 30, and he slept in one of the beds instead of on the floor. Elvira's children received schoolbooks.

Since this year's civil war, though, the PCC is more than just a shadow welfare state -- according to Maierowitsch it has a political reputation; it's become a brand like Mercedes or al-Qaida. An organization builds internal coherence through fear and trust, he says, and the message of the violent "demonstration" was simple: This city is ours.

Violence is a centrifuge

People from the upper classes, like de Nadai, can't move through Sao Paolo the way they used to. His wife Sandra flies to Daslu just to go shopping, and his sons, Fernando and Fabricio -- when they don't take the helicopter -- drive a silver S-500 Mercedes with bulletproof windows. They'd rather travel without bodyguards, but their father won't let them. The city center has a nickname: "Crackolandia," or Crack Land.

De Nadai's younger sister Mariangela was held up on the street in 1993 in broad daylight. The kidnappers probably just wanted to carry out a sequestra relâmpago. Such "blitz kidnappings" involve taking the hostage to a bank teller, where he or she withdraws all the money on their account before being kicked down and left to lie there. These kidnappers forced Mariangela into their car and drove off, but crashed into a delivery truck. They escaped, but left Mariangela behind with a broken neck.

She spent 14 months in the intensive care unit of Sao Paolo's Albert Einstein Hospital. De Nadai arranged for doctors to be flown in from the United States, and he engaged dozens of private detectives. To no avail: His sister died, and her kidnappers were never found.

He learned from that experience, he says.

Violence works like a centrifuge. It separates out the various elements of society. Giant metropolises like Sao Paolo split up into different social strata -- they develop a criminal underworld that forms a society of its own, replicating the state system. One layer above this criminal underworld is the middle class, a thin segment of society that does everything it can to close itself off, and above the middle class is the segment of the rich and the super-rich. It's only logical that millionaires should seek safety even higher up, by stepping into helicopters.

Or, into artificial cities. Across from Daslu there used to be a small mountain on the west bank of the Rio Pinheiros. Now there's a hole in the ground, and inside, an army of construction workers in yellow helmets feed the hole with tons of concrete and core wire. If investors have their way, a total of €640 million ($813 million) will disappear into the pit, which is Brazil's most expensive real estate project -- a fortress for the upper classes.

This will be a new Sao Paolo, a Sao Paolo from the fourth dimension, which will avoid contact with the rest of the city. The plan is for an enormous residential, shopping and office complex with nine skyscrapers, surrounded by palm trees and parks, equipped with eight cinemas and the largest sports complex in South America. Only those with an anuual income of €150,000 ($190,000) or more will be allowed to purchase an apartment there. The smallest will have an area of 240 square meters (2,583 square feet), the largest, 780 square meters (8,396 square feet). This real estate project is a bid to escape the penetrating power of the PCC.

Elvira de Souza has never heard of it, but she would probably see the project as a sign of success -- an indication that the rich are afraid, as she expects them to be.

She's just asked her son-in-law David to find an easy-to-handle weapon, and she's made sure the favela bosses understand what she intends to do. She tells them it's her right to take revenge.

Is she really serious?

One evening David brings home an Indumil revolver, the Cassidy model, with a long barrel. Elvira de Souza then has to face the fact that she's underestimated her shadow state. On the very same evening her two godfathers pay her a visit. They don't stay long. They speak quietly, remain friendly. But they let her know they want neither maverick behavior nor unrest in the favela.

Elvira de Souza understands what they mean. It's a new era. She won't kill her neighbor. Or maybe she will, eventually. The war isn't over yet, after all.

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