Understanding the São Paulo Attacks


Harvard Law researchers, in collaboration with Brazilian scholars and rights groups, work to unravel the May 2006 criminal attacks, the police response and the road forward

Policeman in Heliópolis neighborhood during the week of the PCC attacks.

In May 2006, a group known as the First Command of the Capital (the Primeiro Comando da Capital, or PCC from its initials in Portuguese) launched an organized campaign of revolts in eighty-three prisons and 274 attacks on police stations, fire departments, private schools, hospitals, public prosecutors’ office, automatic teller machines, and city buses. In the first four days, the planned violence claimed the lives of 31 police officers, 8 prison agents, and 4 civilians. The wave of attacks caught the city by surprise (although authorities had known about possible coordinated attacks for some time) and its lack of preparation showed. Thousands of terrified residents refused to leave their homes to go to work and school (in part, unable due to the destruction and interference in public transportation); many others left early. São Paulo, South America’s greatest economic hub nearly ground to a halt in the coming days, costing the city and the region tens of millions of dollars.

Embarrassed by their inability to provide security to its residents, a few days later, the São Paulo police responded in a highly suspect, though predictable fashion, given the institution’s long history of abuse. In the space of five days, police officers reportedly killed more than 100 civilians in armed confrontations. While much is disputed about these killings, what is certain is that in two weeks in May, there were 493 homicide victims in São Paulo, of which 43 were police officers. Those familiar with the 450 incidents involving civilian deaths (forensic experts who have reviewed the autopsy reports, rights groups, and public prosecutors) characterize many, if not most, as unjustified summary executions. For the full year (2006), a University of São Paulo research center placed the number of civilians killed by police in São Paulo jumped to 708, a 50% increase from the 2005 figure of 469. To provide a sense of the scale of this violence, in all of the United States, the number of civilians killed by police annually has not surpassed 400 since 1995.



What happened in those tumultuous days in May 2006 in São Paulo? More importantly, what happened in the months and years preceding the May attacks that led to those events? How did a small group of detainees seeking to improve detention conditions morph into a massive, criminal organization able to hijack South America’s leading urban center? These questions are ones that should be on the top of the agenda for public authorities, academics and concerned citizens in São Paulo and Brazil, as well as those interested in Latin America, police, prisons, and gangs anywhere. Unfortunately, in Brazil, much of the debate has been dominated by responses driven more by interest in political gain than thoughtful public policy. Most of the proposed measures thus far have focused on aggressive approaches to crime suppression, increased sentences, more restrictive prison conditions, and reduced age of majority for criminal prosecution.

Despite this broad tendency to search for immediate, politically popular responses, some in Brazil have faced the more difficult set of questions raised above. In particular, a coalition of Brazilian scholars, research centers, rights groups, and civic organizations, working with researchers at Harvard Law School, has decided to tackle these controversial issues. The joint study (part of which has involved a team of ten students from Harvard Law School, including two Brazilian prosecutors and coordinated by Cavallaro) considers the May attacks from the perspective of the São Paulo state police and prison system. While it addresses the growth of the PCC, its focuses is on public policy. The study seeks to assess the state policies that permitted the growth of the PCC, as well as the structures and policies that have undermined the capacity to respond effectively to increasingly organized criminal violence. The research also hopes to identify strategies for effective control of rising crime consistent with democratic principles, the rule of law and human rights.

Animating the engagement of the Harvard researchers is the conviction that the May incidents and troubling state response, while unique in scale, are not unique in nature. In Rio de Janeiro, organized criminal groups engaged in similar attacks on police stations, banks and city buses in the last three days of December of 2006, causing twenty-five deaths. Looking beyond Brazil, signs of the potential for similar destabilizing attacks and brutal and ineffective state responses abound. The actions of organized criminal groups and gangs have increasingly provoked widespread fear and insecurity throughout Latin America. Maras in El Salvador and Honduras, hidden powers in Guatemala, bandas in Panama, and street crime in Paraguay, Venezuela and elsewhere in the region, for example, have all seized the headlines and dominated radio and television news and political debates. To a lesser extent, the failure of state responses has caused concern among the public, as well as policy makers who have tried a range of poorly developed and widely unsuccessful strategies (mostly involving highly visible police operations and harsher sentences).

In the past few years, the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program has been engaged in research projects in the area of gang violence and state responses in El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, as well as in Brazil. The focus of this work has been to document the phenomenon of rising crime and to identify methods of official response that are both effective and consistent with human rights and the rule of law. The research focus is driven by the Program’s concern with the role of crime and state response in the protection of human rights in the Americas and beyond. While much of the world has focused on religious-based extremism, the face of terror in Latin America—organized crime violence and abusive police—has been somewhat more mundane though far more deadly in absolute terms. In Brazil alone, for example, ordinary street crime, much of it gang-related violence, claims the lives of tens of thousands per year. The number of civilians killed by police per year is nearly on the same order of magnitude. In addition to the 708 civilians killed by São Paulo police in 2006, police in Rio de Janeiro killed another 1.112 civilians. In January 2007 alone, perhaps in response to the late December attacks, Rio de Janeiro police killed 117 civilians, an increase of 77.3% compared to the same month the prior year. While figures for the rest of Brazil are less accurate, they are likely in the range of several thousand per year.



Although its first appearance on the national stage did not occur until 2001 (when it coordinated two dozen simultaneous prison riots), the PCC had been formed nearly a decade earlier by detainees in São Paulo state in 1993 with the knowledge—and without the opposition—of the prison authorities. The organization began as a response to the abysmal conditions of detention in São Paulo. Extreme overcrowding in dank, filthy prisons and rampant physical abuse were the norm in the state’s detention centers. Extreme incidents of police and prison guard abuse in São Paulo jails had traumatized detainees (and also shocked public opinion). The two most noteworthy incidents were the February 1989 death by beatings and asphyxiation of eighteen prisoners in the 42d Police District in São Paulo, and the 1992 massacre of 111 prisoners by police—mostly pre-trial detainees—at the House of Detention (Casa de Detenção) in Carandiru. The latter incident remains a central rallying cry for the PCC and detainees in São Paulo state in general.

The jail in which the PCC was formed was a particularly notorious center of abuse at the time, known as the Piranhão or “Big Piranha”. In this context, detainees formed the First Command of the Capital, or Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) to defend detainees against official abuse and to fight for better conditions and privileges, such as basic hygienic conditions, better food, television sets and other amenities. Over the years, the PCC has grown, while becoming more organized. It has extended beyond detention centers and into street crime, enforcing strict, internal rules with brutal punishments, including decapitations of enemies and those considered traitors. At the same time, it has established a strategy of helping the spouses, partners, and children of group members, paying their rent, supplying them food, and organizing free transportation for weekly visits to the prisons, thus cultivating sympathy and support for the group.



During the second half of the 1990s and the first half of this decade, the São Paulo state government took steps to address extreme overcrowding in the prison system by building prisons throughout the state and removing thousands of detainees from police lock ups and jails (generally, the centers with the most horrendous conditions). Yet the ambitious construction initiative failed to keep pace with the increasing inmate population, fueled in part by a judicial system that has continued to emphasize prison as the main solution for criminal infractions. Over the past decade, the prison population in the state has more than doubled 62.278 in 1996 to 144.542 in 2006.

Similar failures have characterized efforts at police reform over the same period. While efforts to professionalize the police and respond to police violence marked public policy in the 1990s, in the past several years, authorities have returned to approaches that have fostered police brutality. Not surprisingly, police corruption and brutality scandals have continued and perhaps intensified in recent years. State policy geared towards encouraging police to respond violently and without adequate safeguards was most transparent in the days after the initial PCC attacks in May in which police engaged in widespread killings of suspects.

At the same time, the research project considers the ways in which the strategies of the PCC have undermined effective responses by exploiting the state’s weaknesses. The research examines how PCC strategy contributed to the definition of ambiguous public policy, which at times repressed (targeting PCC leaders for restrictive conditions in detention) and at other times legitimized the group’s actions (permitting the group’s leaders to control benefits within prisons).



Over the past several months, several legal reform measures have advanced in the Brazilian Congress. Our research examines the potential of these proposed legal reforms to defeat the powerful structure for funding and for communication that the PCC has established among its members and with other criminal groups to control the prison system and to commit crimes. The research also considers the need and potential for non-legal reform, such as measures to reform police practice and transform prison policies. Because it is an ongoing project, we can not be certain about the final conclusions the study will reach. Yet we can say for certain that the capacity of state authorities to respond lawfully to the actions of the PCC and similar groups may well be the most important single challenge facing São Paulo—and Brazil—in the years ahead. We hope that our work with our Brazilian colleagues will help to advance understanding of policy developments likely to address the broader issue of citizen insecurity within a framework guided by the rule of law and human rights.

Spring 2007Volume VI, Number 3

James Louis Cavallaro, Clinical Professor of Law and Executive Director of the Human Rights Program, at the Law School, is the author of a number of articles, report, and books on issues of criminal justice and human rights, and the founder and Vice President of the Centro de Justiça Global in Brazil.

Raquel Ferreira Dodge, a former visiting fellow at the Human Rights Program and candidate for the LL.M. degree (’07), is a leading federal prosecutor in Brazil who has led successful investigations and prosecutions into organized crime.

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