BETWEEN 1999 and 2011 São Paulo’s murder rate fell by almost three-quarters, turning what had been one of Brazil’s most dangerous states into one of its safest. Now the violence is rising again. In the past two months more than 300 people have died in the state capital in an undeclared war between police and the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), a drugs gang, twice the tally for the same period last year. More than 90 police officers have been slain since January; the total for 2011 was 56. This year looks certain to close with the state murder rate back at over ten per 100,000 residents: epidemic level.
At first the state government claimed the rise in killings was a blip. It refused to mention the PCC, apparently for fear of glamorising it or causing panic. That made it look complacent. In October the federal justice minister said he had offered São Paulo reinforcements, but been refused. They were not needed, huffed Antonio Ferreira Pinto, the state’s prickly security secretary. His federal counterpart, Regina Miki, suggested that São Paulo should learn from Rio de Janeiro, which uses federal forces to expel gangsters from its lawless favelas (though Rio’s murder rate remains double São Paulo’s).
The criticisms have now sparked a response. At the end of October state officials sent extra police into Campo Limpo, Capão Redondo and Paraisópolis, large favelas from which they think the PCC has been ordering the murders. On November 7th extra forces arrived in Guarulhos, a nearby city. “Operation Saturation” has already led to scores of arrests as well as to drugs and weapons seizures—and the discovery of a register of officers’ names and addresses, thought to be a hit list. Meanwhile officials have at last accepted the federal government’s offer to house PCC leaders in distant, high-security jails: one, known as Piauí, who is suspected of ordering the murder of at least six police officers while behind bars, was transferred on November 8th.
On the streets of Paraisópolis, daily life seems little changed by the heavier police presence. But locals confide that after dark they feel, if anything, less safe. A student says that, although he is law-abiding, he fears being stopped by the patrolling ROTA, the state’s trigger-happy special forces. “If I’m late now, my mother panics,” he says.
State officials say that officers are being murdered at the say-so of drug lords whose profits are being squeezed; those in prison resent being held in separate cells, which constrains their activities. But police are part of the problem, too. On November 13th five officers were arrested after a video surfaced of them shooting a man in their custody. Many of the killings are drive-bys at drug-dealing hotspots: rogue police officers are thought to be behind some of them. The gruesome tit-for-tat is making São Paulo a bloodier place again.