In the aftermath of a failed economic boom and far-reaching corruption scandals affecting state oil giant Petrobras among other enterprises , a cash-strapped Brazil unable to pay its police officers and guards in some states is losing grip of its streets and penitentiaries. Simultaneously, merciless drugs gangs once in cahoots have chosen to break a decades-spanning peace pact at the worst possible moment.
While in some quarters it would be argued that the authorities never had control to lose in the first place, they, as is the case concerning numerous social Latin America’s largest country, can be directly blamed for the formation of prison gangs and the favela slums their members hail from. Neglected by the state, freed slaves, war veterans and later migrants arriving from the poor rural northeast to seek their fortune in the more prosperous southeastern megacities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, were forced to construct their own ramshackle shanties in lieu of appropriate housing.
Naturally, as their inhabitants continued to be ignored and were left to their own devices, these neighbourhoods became breeding grounds for criminal activity and bandidos found their way into Brazil’s prison system in their hundreds of thousands. During the military dictatorship’s second decade of rule in the late 1970’s, Comando Vermelho (the Red Command) grew across Rio’s state prisons and learned how to carry out kidnappings and bank robberies among other acts of terror from political prisoners and leftist guerrilla groups such as Vanguarda Armada Revolucionária Palmares (the Popular Revolutionary Vanguard), of which the recently-ousted president Dilma Rousseff was once a member, and even Colombia’s notorious FARC.
In the 1980’s, as the military dictatorship ceded power in the wake of Brazil’s first democratic election in over two decades, overbearing security institutions were dismantled – in turn creating a power vacuum as CV became less politicised and focused its efforts on battling its main rival, the Terceiro Comando (the Third Command), a breakaway group formed after an internal leadership dispute within CV, for lucrative drug-dealing turf across Rio’s favelas.
Surprisingly, while still the setting of rampant inequality and crime, Brazil’s largest and most populous city of São Paulo stayed relatively untouched, with respect to organised trafficking gangs, until one fateful day in October 1992. As excellently dramatised in the recently-passed Hector Babenco’s 2003 film – featuring an impressive early role from a young Wagner Moura most famous to foreign audiences as Pablo Escobar in Narcos – a massacre in the now-demolished Carandiru penitentiary proved a turning point as, making no effort to open negotiations upon storming the facility, military police officers laid waste to 102 prisoners after a riot broke out over a game of football between inmates.
In response to what was widely-regarded as the worst human rights violation in Brazil’s chequered history, prisoners in Carandiru united in order to defend themselves against potential future attacks and thus the Primeiro Comando da Capital (the First Command of the Capital) was born. Much like Comando Vermelho, with whom a peace pact was formed, the PCC initially started as a political movement with its 16-point statute focusing on a declaration of war against the state in the battle for improved human rights and what it expected of its paying members. Inevitably however, the movimento made a foray into the narcotics trade and spread from São Paulo’s state prisons to its cities.
In the 1990’s to early 00’s, Jardim Ângela, located in the deepest reaches of São Paulo’s Zona Sul (southern suburbs) and often-referenced by Brazil’s grimiest hip-hop ensemble Racionais MC’s, continuously found itself ranked the world’s most dangerous neighbourhood by international organisations including UNESCO. Rather than being controlled by one sole gang, this seemingly sleepy, rural enclave and its drugs market was fought over by several, unorganised small groups as killings, often in broad daylight, occurred daily and resulted in the inevitable slaying of innocent bystanders.
The PCC, now with complete, uncontested authority across the state’s penitentiaries – which were used as recruitment centres for new members ready to be released onto the streets – invaded Ângela and ordered an immediate ceasefire between its warring factions, who were given the ultimatum of either joining the organisation or facing extermination. In Paraisópolis, the city’s second largest favela, control was reportedly wrested from the clutches of corrupt military policemen as the Command headed further north until it eventually had every one of São Paulo’s favelas under its jurisdiction.
Ironically, these communities actually became safer with a homicidal mafia at the helm. Either in embarrassment or out of fear of glamourising it, the authorities refused to acknowledge the PCC’s existence as the murder rate dropped by 75%. Whereas before these neighbourhoods were a free-for-all, their inhabitants now had to tow the line as crimes on fellow residents such as murder, rape, paedophilia and theft – which their assailants could be certain were highly unlikely to be investigated by uninterested, complacent cops – became punishable by death.
As detailed in Graham Denyer Willis’ highly-recommended book, The Killing Consensus, a common conclusion is that the police turn a blind eye to the PCC’s trade (and are even involved to some extent with rumours of officers being paid by the gang for contract killings) as it disposes of society’s dregs – murderers, rapists, thieves – and saves them the dirty work. The only time the peace is ever disturbed, as witnessed in the unrest of 2006 and 2012, is if an officer is killed by a gang member or vice versa. Then, Hell breaks loose as public buses are burned, police are killed on patrol, in their homes or at their second jobs, and their off-duty colleagues carry out vigilante executions en masse in retaliation.
Fast forward to the present day and while its influence continues to spread, with rumours of having once been represented by the current Defence Security and soon-to-be-confirmed Supreme Court Judge Alexandre De Moraes as the vice president of the Human Rights department Luiz Carlos dos Santos has also recently been arrested on suspicion of receiving payments from the gang totalling more than $40,000, the PCC faces a power struggle not against the authorities but rather the fellow criminal mobs it once worked alongside.
The current conflict appears to have broken out around June last year when a Brazilian drug lord, affiliated with neither gang and in control of the money-spinning trafficking route from Paraguay into Brazil, was assassinated. Paraguayan officials, some of whom are believed to be in the PCC’s pocket, suggest that the São Paulo-based gang was responsible as it has taken control of the territory and refuses to share it with Comando Vermelho, as was once the arrangement, in the quest to become the most powerful gang in Brazil. Wishing to also assume highly-profitable routes from Colombia into northern Brazil too, the PCC has apparently reached out to dissident soldiers from the aforementioned FARC.
In an attempt to create divisions within its new-found rivals’ ranks, the PCC has also apparently tried to tempt high-profile members of CV, who it sees as intellectually inferior and less-organised, to cross sides. Weakened by ongoing battles with the Terceiro Comando, BOPE special forces who attempted to pacify favelas in the run up to the Olympics, and strengthening militias made up of current and ex-corrupt policemen as portrayed in the second installment of the highest-ever grossing domestic film Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad ), Comando Vermelho has seen some of its own Rio turf snatched by the PCC and has been forced to form allegiances with smaller groups elsewhere around the country.
While it currently faces no threat to its standing in São Paulo, where prisons are widely regarded to be the safest, brutal riots in the north of Brazil have cast the PCC against the Familia Do Norte (North Family), which is now allied with Comando Vermelho. On Sunday October 16, PCC members stormed an opposite wing in Agrícola de Monte Cristo penitentiary containing CV inmates whilst also taking over 100, predominantly female, visitors hostage during visiting hours. Until BOPE cleared the facility, the death toll had risen to 25 as 22 more victims were claimed in revenge attacks across three other prisons during the same month.
On New Year’s Day 2017, Brazil bloodiest jail uprising since the aforementioned Carandiru massacre occurred as 56 inmates were slain in the northwestern city of Manuas’ Anisio Jobim penitentiary. Although failing to top Carandiru’s death toll, the incident was the had the highest amount of prisoner-on-prisoner fatalities in recorded history with one local lawyer branding the institution, which houses almost triple its 400-plus capacity, a lost cause.
Overcrowding certainly hinders the hopes of a resolution to the conflict with Brazil’s 622,000 prison population contained in run-down, under-funded public jails that run at occupancy rates of 157% on average and provide difficulties in keeping warring groups apart. From their cells, gang leaders have the ability to co-ordinate attacks simultaneously across states and dish out orders to their underlings at street level with mobile phones smuggled by visitors to current and prospective members. Also complicit are underpaid and now, in some cases, unpaid, guards receiving handsome sums much higher than their usual pittance of a salary for their participation. Additionally, they may fear for the safety of themselves and their loved ones should they refuse to play ball.
While it may be possible to reduce and altogether eliminate the influx of contraband, the uncompromising school-to-prison pipeline is much more difficult to clog up. Year upon year, it churns out an endless supply of mostly black and mixed-race young men to Brazil’s penal institutions with the country’s dire public education system continually failing its alumni as unemployment sits at a record 12 million. While some may already have intentions to join the gang upon arrival, all unaffiliated new inmates, who whether guilty or not may spend years inside before they even receive a court date thanks to a heavily backlogged justice system, are forced to pay for their meals and, if available, a bed should they wish to stay out of its affairs. Otherwise, they are forced to carry out acts at the PCC’s behest as payment for these commodities. This can range from anything such as attacks on other inmates or coercing their female partners on the outside into smuggling drugs during visiting hours or transporting blood money across town for assassinations.
Although reforms of the prison system have been promised in the wake of further riots on January 6 and 14, the latter of which lasted for 10 days, Brazil’s worst recession in 25 years and a proposed two-decade long spending cap leave its population wondering how much truth there is behind the promise of an extra 1.2 billion reais ($373 million) in funding. While worryingly, such action is also tipped to occur in Rio de Janeiro, the small coastal state of Espirito Santo has been under the national spotlight this week as a strike by unpaid military policeman paved the way for a terrifying five-day crime wave to break out. As 80 local residents were killed, widespread theft, assaults and rapes also became common currency and a group of young hoodlums added insult to injury by being photographed in a stolen patrol vehicle.
No doubt pleasing the Intervenção Militar JÁ (Military Intervention ALREADY) movement, which yearns for a return to the days of the military dictatorship it fondly remembers as a period in which security and public education were, apparently, of much better quality, the army has been called in to restore peace in Espirito Santo. Similarly, the government is apparently readying 1,000 troops to send into its most troubled prisons as the fate of the nation overall hangs in the balance. As declared by a member of Familia Do Norte – which has even gone as far as to create its own Brazilian funk anthem threatening beheadings and the like for its rivals – while his comrade grilled the corpse of a rival inmate during a ‘churrasco de PCC‘ (PCC barbecue), “this is just the beginning.”