In 2006, a prison gang managed to shut down one of the largest cities in the world. The culprit takes the name of the PCC (Primeiro Comando da Capital), a criminal organization fed by Sao Paulo’s- or really Brazil’s- overpopulated penitentiary system. Provoked, the state has come face-to-face with a nascent threat, the intellectual convict.
Sitting at a bus stop, one local Paulistano recounted the experience to me first-hand:
“There was a curfew of 6pm, but I paid no attention to this. After having left work, I rode my bike in the street and noticed not a soul in sight. And keep in mind, sir, this is a city notorious for its traffic jams. The city simply shut down, and not because Brazil was playing [o jogo bonito].”
Later that year, waves of violence forced a “truce” between prisoners and police – a factor of power for the PCC and a submission on the part of the state. Since then, the PCC has become a parallel power. Building off Brazil’s developmental and economic gains, this criminal band has become smarter and more organized, utilizing political rhetoric for strategic ends. Most remarkably, since the 2006 violent outbursts, this gang has avoided conventional violent associations of former criminal wannabes. Any related violence is the result of the state violating the terms of the truce. Instead, the PCC seeks to create an identity: the aim is to discredit the government (especially law enforcement), trumping the state’s capacity to manage and maintain. Again, this is done without violence unless warranted. Understand: the PCC’s interests lie in retribution, using money and politics as leverage.
Don’t believe me? Consider this….
The PCC has a membership fee. Monthly dues amount up to R $ 25 for prison members, and ~R$ 500 for outside “representatives”. Enrollment entails a designated post for each person within the organization, providing a sense of identity – and responsibility – nonexistent on the streets. This creates an emotional attachment to the organization’s cause and a common enemy: the state. But in order for the gang to survive and develop, it needs financing and structure. For that reason, the PCC operates like a business. Today’s criminal organizations are more adaptive and innovative than those of the past. Bureaucracy is thrown out the door in lieu of a more interactive, diversified business portfolio. Illicit investment runs the gamut from illegal drugs to kidnapping to arms (issues that deserve their own bate-papo to elaborate).
The PCC is even networking. Alliances with Rio de Janeiro’s own prison gang, Comando Vermelho, and Colombian FARC guerrillas help build partner capacity. Cornered, Brazil’s politicians negotiated with this criminal gang for security in last year’s World Cup and will probably do so prior to next year’s Olympics. The result: lower homicide rates in select locations. That is, murders in Brazil’s southeast have lowered while the northeast remains one of the most dangerous regions in the world. Strategic connections have allowed the organization to refrain from violence. In fact, to the PCC, the return on investment in illicit trade is far more appealing than bloodshed. And if they decide to use violence, it is to discipline the members within the organization. Gang leadership once prosecuted an underling in a conference-style trial by Skype!
Accordingly, I am left scratching my head…how do we handle a criminal organization that has reached new levels of complexity?
Well, it is now widely acknowledged that the methods of the past are obsolete. And since the PCC’s relationship with the State is contemptuous, it would be wise to stop giving them an enemy to confront. One should also consider draining the PCC’s pool of recruitment, backed by a dysfunctional penal code. With such a recipe for conciliation, we can begin to work on building the mutual respect and social inclusion that is a common desire by street gangs in Latin America. The PCC is already well-established; at this juncture, one can only channel the flow, not dam it like years past.
Considering Brazil is the world’s second largest consumer of cocaine and crack, the PCC has a vast domestic market. The lines between trafficker and user must first be refocused. By rehashing the penalty for drug use, a reduction in the number of incarcerations would lower the prison recruitment pool for the PCC. This is especially true for the younger, more vulnerable initiates who are in search of an identity and thus more easily influenced.
The problem is how it is viewed. For one, the jaded “war on drugs” approach has finally been reconsidered. This very linear analysis was outright counterproductive – one system to solve the whole problem. Yes, minimalism is always preferred, but the reality is one of complexity. People are complicated; drugs are used (and abused) for anxiety, focus, depression. So, there will always be a market in drugs because people will always put a value in drugs. If the state denies this line of business, someone else, somehow, will satisfy the demand – prison gangs, for instance. Yet São Paulo’s Braços Abertos (Open Arms) program, in the heart of cracolândia (crackland), is a push in the right direction. Located in the downtown Luz neighborhood, Braços Abertos aims to socially reintegrate drug addicts from the streets. Cracolândia was diagnosed with this program due to a police-powered prejudice between drug users and criminals.
First, let me say that films like Carandiru are helping; films like Tropa Elite are not. Tropa Elite embellishes the violent training drills for BOPE initiates, which translates into protocol (brutality often goes unpunished). Such cinematic depictions foment a culture of violence. The film Carandiru, in comparison, reveals the wanton massacre of 111 prisoners by São Paulo police in 1992. The PCC, in fact, is a by-product of this specific injustice – fueling a civil war against law enforcement. The struggle is for retribution. So, Brazil’s intellectual criminal organizations, now indoctrinated in social justice rhetoric, accuse the police of violence. And the police accuse the gangs of mischief based on stigmas. The upshot: an endless cycle of revenge killings.
The PCC eats at the government’s credibility like a swarm of termites feeding on the foundation of the Brazilian House of Congress. And given the state’s fear, harsh repression becomes the “remedy”. This ultimately gives the PCC publicity and heightens the government’s unpopularity – at a time when it cannot afford it economically and politically. Fear then turns into terror and, suddenly, the disease is preferred over the “remedy”. So, while the state struggles with myopia, the PCC has its eyes set on the horizon.
German Linares is a M.A. candidate at the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University. With Latin America as a regional focus, his interests lie in the following extant security issues: illicit trade, organized crime, criminal justice, and human rights.