SAO PAULO, Brazil — When Maria Izabel Marques moved to the poor periphery of this sprawling metropolis more than a decade ago, battling gangs had turned her neighborhood into a war zone.
Bullet-riddled bodies were left on the roads near her house, she said, and residents feared walking the streets at night. "This was a mean place back then," the 58-year-old said. "We lived side by side with death then."
Such horror stories are becoming a thing of the past, however, as Brazil's richest and most populous state enjoys the fruits of an eight-year public safety campaign that's revived neighborhoods such as Marques' and become a model for other Brazilian states.
The plan's success produced on Dec. 7 what Sao Paulo state security secretary Ronaldo Marzagao said was a milestone for the city of Sao Paulo, home to 11 million people: For the first time in five decades, a whole day went by without a homicide.
The effects have been felt even in Sao Paulo city's richest neighborhoods, where more people are forgoing private security guards, electric fencing and other protections that used to be obligatory.
"We trust our police to protect us," said Asuncion Blanco, a community leader in the tony neighborhood of Pacaembu near the center of town. "That wasn't always the case."
Cutting crime in Sao Paulo is no small feat. With 40 million people, Sao Paulo state has as many people as Colombia and Argentina, the continent's largest countries after Brazil.
Since 1999, homicide rates have fallen by 70 percent statewide, and indices of armed robberies, vehicle thefts and other crimes also have dropped.
While the murder rate in Sao Paulo — 11 per 100,000 people this year — remains twice that of the United States, it's half the Brazilian average and only a fourth of the homicide rate in Rio de Janeiro state, where gun battles between state police and drug gangs have claimed hundreds of lives this year.
What's made the difference seems simple but is revolutionary in a country where police often enter poor neighborhoods with guns blazing.
State police have put more emphasis on gathering intelligence about the gangs they're battling before confronting them and are trying to avoid firefights that often kill the innocent, Marzagao said. At the same time, the state has brought more social services to abandoned areas where gangs have long ruled.
That's included launching "saturation operations" in which hundreds of police officers and social workers occupy troubled neighborhoods for months to weed out gang leaders and establish a government presence.
One such operation occupied Marques' neighborhood for nearly 90 days earlier this year, triggering an 80 percent drop in homicide rates there.
"Our plan is to plant the flag of the government where it's now absent," Marzagao said. "Because where in society or in poor communities there's an absence of authority, that's where the criminals go."
Critics counter that the connection between government action and the drop in crime was tenuous and that problems such as police abuse and powerful drug gangs remain critical.
Last year's three waves of attacks by the powerful prison gang First Command of the Capital, which claimed 172 lives around the state, proved that crime was still out of control, said Paulo de Mesquita Neto, the coordinator of the human rights program for the Department of Violence Studies at the University of Sao Paulo.
Rather than attacking the root causes of street crime, De Mesquita said, the state has thrown thousands of people behind bars. That's encouraged the growth of prison gangs capable of striking anywhere in the state. Last year's attacks, for example, were ordered by imprisoned gang leaders using smuggled-in cell phones to reach their soldiers on the street.
Since 1996, the state's prison population has jumped by about 130 percent to nearly 140,000. About 40 percent of Brazil's inmate population is in Sao Paulo.
"Organized crime grew along with these government policies," de Mesquita said. "If you want to stop these gangs, you'll have to find a better way of stopping people from turning to crime in the first place."
Marzagao responded that putting more criminals behind bars was an essential first step to getting crime rates down.
"The professional criminal needs to be in prison, and that's why the prisons are full," Marzagao said. "But there are two sides to what we're doing, and we're not just locking people up."
Other analysts said the drop in violence happened after the First Command of the Capital ended the gang wars by vanquishing its rivals. A booming state economy also gave more people an alternative to crime, community groups said. Sao Paulo makes up a third of Brazil's economy and a fifth of the nation's population.
Marques said the big question now is how long the trend will last in rehabilitated neighborhoods such as hers.
Standing at the office window of the community association she heads, Marques said she remembered the bad old days of nighttime gun battles and rampant drug dealing that turned her neighborhood into one of Sao Paulo's most notorious.
"You don't hear about people dying every day anymore," she said. "The police have acted."
She pointed to a long, white building that had been the local headquarters of the First Command of the Capital. After the gang left years ago, the building became a church.
She also pointed out two new high-rises in the middle of the slum that offer government-sponsored day care services, vocational classes and other programs.
"Everyone was happy with what the police did," she said. "At least the people who weren't involved with the gangs were happy."
Her son, Isaque Marques, 31, was more skeptical. He said that practically no police have remained since the saturation operation concluded in June, and the community had been abandoned again. The broken street lamps that leave the slum dark at night remained broken after the operation, he said.
"The police came and left, and the criminals remained," he said. "They haven't been as active as before, but we're waiting for their next move."