A series of recent crises in Brazil are sobering when one considers the grip organized crime can gain in a city, and even parts of an entire country. Are we immune to a similar occurrence?
As Stan Lehman of the Associated Press points out: "Less than a year ago, a top Sao Paulo law enforcement officer boasted that police had all but destroyed one of Brazil's most notorious crime groups, the PCC." Eleven top officials of the group had been arrested and there was great celebration.
What a difference a year has made.
This week, the PCC unleashed an unprecedented crime wave that has left at least 150 dead, at least 40 of them police officers.
There have been widespread prison riots and, from inside Sao Paulo state penitentiaries, the PCC is using cell phones to order its "soldiers" to attack bars, banks and police stations with machine guns, grenades and incendiary devices and to set public buses on fire. The gang has managed or orchestrated uprisings in more than 70 prisons across the state and there is growing fear the rioting will spread some 220 miles north to Rio de Janeiro. Considering the targets to date, nobody is safe.
Martial law and curfews have been declared; many are living in fear of new attacks. The population of Sao Paulo is about 12 million and the Rio head count is more than 9 million.
Lehman of the AP points out that the ongoing violence came in response to the transfer of eight imprisoned PCC leaders to a high-security facility in an effort to sever their ties to gang members on the outside. The PCC was founded in 1993 by hardened criminals at the Taubate Penitentiary in Sao Paulo but remained a relatively obscure group until February 2001. A wave of rebellions across the state left 19 inmates dead and the uprising, the worst in Brazil history, took 27 hours to quell.
Officials say that while the PCC and similar gangs were originally formed to pressure authorities to improve prison conditions, they soon abandoned that goal and began using their clout inside the state's prisons to direct drug dealing and extortion operations on the outside.
Many innocents already have been killed and injured, Sao Paulo is in many ways an armed camp and we see the horrific combination of modern electronic communications, criminal intent and organization and the kind of terrorism we are likely to see in increasing amounts.
We see film and television scenarios that reflect such terrible conditions and hope they never will occur in our nation. But are we as safe from such as we would like to believe? And how many copycats of the Brazilian terror are likely to emerge? Such crime is cancerous and terrifying and so far there is far less encouraging news about how to deal with it than we would prefer.