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Brazil Considers Measures to Fight Organized Crime - 2002-01-22

The Brazilian government is considering a broad array of measures to fight organized crime, following the murder of a popular Sao Paulo-area mayor. While some of the changes can be enacted immediately, such as increased investigative powers for the federal police, others must wait until Congress reconvenes in February. But skeptics say many of the strategies mandated after a crime scandal a year and a half ago have never been put into practice.

More than 50,000 people turned out Monday to mourn Celso Daniel, the mayor of Santo Andre, a satellite city of Sao Paulo. The popular mayor, who was reelected with 70 percent of the vote, was killed last week, the latest victim of a spiraling violent crime rate.

But there is no clear evidence that the crime was politically motivated. Mayor Daniel was kidnapped Friday while riding in a friend's car. His body was found on a dirt road two days later. He, along with other members of Brazil's center-left Workers Party (PT), had received threats from a little-known group calling itself the Brazilian Revolutionary Action Front, which also claimed credit for the murder of another PT mayor last year.

University of Brasilia political science professor David Fleischer says Mr. Daniel's party has clearly been the target of violence.

"If you look at all the politicians murdered in Brazil - 17 over the last four years - 12 of them were members of the PT so statistically it's very heavily in favor of political crime," he said. "However, in this specific case only a thorough police investigation will be able to discover what happened."

Mr. Daniel's case is complicated by the fact that the businessman who was driving the car, Sergio Gomes da Silva, may have been the target of the kidnappers.

Nevertheless, politicians are proposing a host of ambitious crime-fighting proposals to reassure Brazilians they will get the crime rate under control, particularly in Sao Paulo, where about 300 kidnappings were reported last year, up from 12 kidnappings five years before.

Some of the proposed measures include outlawing the sale of pre-paid cellphones, considered useful to criminals, and bringing the military into crime investigations.

But for many, the flurry of activity is similar to the high-profile crime package passed following a Rio de Janeiro bus hijacking in 2000, after which federal spending for public security actually declined.

Professor Fleischer says he's pessimistic that anything meaningful will change, but adds that politicians should begin by cracking down on criminals' bank accounts.

"Organized crime operates freely in Brazil, they have access to very high quality professionals, lawyers, accountants, security people," he said. "They operate freely in the banking system. They have overwhelming firepower, much more than the state apparatus has."

An example of criminals flaunting their power in Brazil came on Friday, in an unrelated event the same day as Mr. Daniels' kidnapping. A hijacked helicopter touched down at a maximum security prison in Garulhos in Sao Paulo state, whisking away two criminals convicted of kidnapping and murder.

In another example, the national coordinator of Brazil's landless movement, the MST, Jose Rainha Junior, was attacked and shot in the shoulder while visiting a land invasion in western Sao Paulo state Saturday. He survived.