Crime Spree

Crime Brazil
Testing security glass in São Paulo, Brazil, Jan. 18, 2002, one day before the murder of mayor Celso Daniel (Photo: AFP).

The murder of PT (Workers’ Party) mayors Celso Daniel and Antonio da Costa Santos (Toninho) in São Paulo, and the kidnapping and subsequent release of advertising magnate Washington Olivetto by an international gang of left-wing guerrillas, caused fear and confusion about the perpetrators’ identity, their motivations, and how the crimes were related.

The FARB (Brazilian Revolutionary Action Front), a possibly fictitious left-wing group, claimed responsibility for Toninho’s execution. Daniel’s murder pointed to the work of a criminal gang. The Olivetto kidnapping appeared unrelated to either murder, according to Veja’s Alexandre Secco and Thaís Oyama; veterans of Chile’s anti-Pinochet armed resistance were involved. “These people,” said a policeman quoted in the story, “are now like Samurai left without a master: They wander aimlessly, taking any dirty job offered to them” (Feb. 13).

centrist newsmagazine, São Paulo
liberal newsmagazine, São Paulo
O Estado de São Paulo
conservative, São Paulo

Istoé’s Ana Carvalho and Vasconcelo Quadros wrote that high-profile kidnappings in Brazil have financed guerrillas in El Salvador and now Colombia since the late 1980s. They alleged that police have proven incompetent and partisan, closing cases before they apprehend the perpetrators and exploiting the cases to discredit the mainstream left (Feb. 8). Florência Costa and Ines Garçoni reported in Istoé (Jan. 30) that some in the PT have viewed the murders as part of a larger conspiracy against their party by traditional conservative forces, the mafias who thrive on political corruption, or an alliance of the two. “It’s maddening, we don’t know who is trying to kill us,” said Geraldo Cruz, PT mayor of Embu in the state of São Paulo, who escaped an attempted bomb attack in November 2001.

Most Brazilians regard these acts as symptoms of a growing problem of violent crime and rampant kidnapping in São Paulo. On March 5, São Paulo police engaged in a car chase and shootout with gang members of the First Command of the Capital (PCC, the most powerful crime organization in São Paulo) who were en route to hijacking a plane, resulting in the deaths of 12 gangsters and the wounding of a policeman.

There is now a consensus among politicians and police that Daniel’s murder was not politically motivated.  As O Estado de São Paulo’s Fabio Diamante and Marcelo Godoy reported (Feb. 28, March 3 and 4), authorities swiftly identified the entire gang responsible for the crime. A month after the event, most of the suspects have been arrested and many have confessed.

Veja has discounted theories that Toninho’s murder was committed by the “FARB.” According to the magazine, he was probably murdered by PCC gangsters (March 1). A Veja editorial introducing a cover story dedicated to rising crime in Brazil stated, “In a country where robberies at traffic lights are routine and kidnappers are claiming victims in the middle classes, the murder of Celso Daniel was a shrill warning that the violent explosion had gone too far.”

And when PT party leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva met with President Fernando Henrique Cardoso following Daniel’s murder, it was, according to the same editorial, to forge a historic alliance of civil society against the criminality that gnaws painfully at Brazil. “The image of the handshake between Lula and FHC in the midst of a national crisis...can be written into history as a transformative moment.” The article added, “The mayor’s death signals that no one is safe” (Jan. 30).