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Brazil's Powerful Prison Gang

Author: Stephanie Hanson
September 26, 2006

Introduction

Brazil has long suffered from one of the highest rates of urban crime in Latin America, a problem the government has addressed by imprisoning large numbers of criminals (its prisons house some 360,000 inmates, the fourth-largest population of inmates in the world). Violent crime has dropped since 2000 in the state of Sao Paulo, but resulted in alarmingly overcrowded state prisons. An outbreak of prison violence in May—so severe it paralyzed the city of Sao Paulo for four days and left nearly two hundred people dead—has analysts and the public wondering if overcrowding and dire prison conditions may pose a wider threat to public safety. There is particular concern about the gang that staged the May attacks, the Sao-Paulo-based Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), or First Capital Command.

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What is the crime situation in Brazil?

Five Brazilian cities—including Rio de Janiero and Sao Paulo—rank among the fifteen most violent in Latin America, a region which has emerged as the world's most violent. According to the Brazilian government, the 2004 murder rate was 26.9 per 100,000 people (in comparison, the United States’ 2004 murder rate was 5.5 per 100,000 people). Experts say the crime problem is fed by unequal income distribution combined with endemic poverty. Out of a population of some 180 million, roughly 50 million live in poverty, reported a 2003 World Bank study.

The Brazilian government has addressed urban crime by putting more people behind bars. Sao Paulo state, the territory of the PCC, contains about 22 percent of Brazil’s population but 44 percent of its inmates. “Conditions in the prisons are horrendous,” says Elizabeth Leeds, an expert on urban violence and former head of the Ford Foundation in Brazil. Many do not even provide inmates with clothes, toiletries, or mattresses.

What is the PCC?

The PCC is a Sao-Paulo-based prison gang that seeks to improve prison conditions and prisoners’ rights. Started in 1993 at a soccer game at Taubate Penitentiary in Sao Paulo, the PCC sought to avenge the victims of the 1992 Carandiru Massacre, in which the Sao Paulo state military police killed over a hundred prisoners. In 2001, the group coordinated simultaneous rebellions in twenty-nine Sao Paulo state prisons, but did not enter the public eye until the May 2006 prison attacks. Two subsequent waves of violence in July and August have increased concerns among prison wardens, the government, and the public about the power and reach of the organization.

Estimates of the PCC’s membership vary widely; the Brazilian police and media agree at least 6,000 members pay monthly dues and are considered part of the organization’s hierarchy. Samuel Logan, a Rio de Janeiro-based journalist, says PCC members are imprisoned for crimes ranging from car theft to bank robbery to "formação de quadrilha" (formation of a criminal gang), but many are still awaiting trial, which enables them to have access to legal counsel. According to testimony by two members of the Sao Paulo Department of Investigation of Organized Crime, the PCC controls more than 140,000 prisoners in Sao Paulo state. Logan says that inmates in prisons controlled by the PCC are not necessarily members but might “say they are members to keep themselves alive.”

How powerful is the PCC?

The extent and duration of May’s attacks in Sao Paulo surprised both the Sao Paulo state government and prison experts, as did the impetus for the attacks: The PCC obtained closed-door congressional testimony that discussed transferring top gang members to maximum-security prisons in an effort to disrupt their control over Sao Paulo’s prisons.

Some think the PCC’s ability to reach outside the prison system, combined with the level of corruption in Brazil’s criminal justice system, means the organization wields a large amount of power. But Leeds calls the PCC’s power “more symbolic than actual.” They “have the power to create a lot of fear and uncertainty among the population,” she says. Others point to the PCC’s ongoing attacks as a sign of government weakness. In the Financial Times, Walter Maierovitch, a former senior security official in Brazil, says the state’s efforts to demonstrate to the public the PCC is under control have actually given the organization more power. “The sad reality," he says, “is that the state is now the prisoner of the PCC.”

What are the PCC’s goals?

The PCC has a sixteen-point manifesto outlining its ideology. Written in 1993, it stresses the PCC’s goal of fighting injustice and oppression in the prison system under the banner “Liberty, Justice, and Peace.” Much of the document deals with discipline: The party does not allow mugging, rape, extortion, or the use of the PCC to resolve personal conflicts. Further, the manifesto reveals that the PCC intends to expand outside the Sao Paulo prison system to achieve national prominence.

Most experts, including Logan, say the PCC’s “fundamental reason to exist is to improve the rights of prisoners.” Drug trafficking and other criminal activities are done primarily to increase the organization’s leverage and funding. Monies raised from these activities are used for, among other things, sending former prisoners to law school and helping the families of members. But the criminal element of the group cannot be ignored. “Over time [the PCC] has had its own style of mission creep,” Logan says.

How does the PCC function?

The PCC has a strict hierarchy. All members—whether in prison or on the outside—pay monthly dues (about twenty-five dollars per month for prisoners and 225 dollars per month for others). Within the gang, members can be soldiers, towers (someone who leads the gang in a particular prison), or pilots (someone who organizes communications), says Logan.

Since 2002, the PCC has been led by Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, known as Marcola, or “Playboy.” Though he has been in prison for half his life (serving a forty-four year sentence for bank robbery), according to the Brazilian news source Epoca, the thirty-nine-year-old Marcola is not a thug. In fact, he is known for being well dressed and somewhat of an intellectual. A recent search of his prison cell uncovered several political manifestos, including Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and two biographies of Che Guevara. Marcola is “very politically minded,” says Logan, and because of the media coverage surrounding the attacks in May, he landed on the cover of a couple of Brazilian magazines and “has become iconic to a lot of prisoners.”

Does the PCC play a role in Brazilian politics?

Experts are divided over the PCC’s influence in Brazilian politics as well as the group’s political goals. Some speculate about the impact of the PCC on October’s presidential elections, which President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva is expected to win. “All the politicians have treaded very gingerly around the whole thing,” says Oxford University’s Timothy Power, president of the Brazilian Studies Association. “Nobody wants to get too closely associated with it during the campaign.” Brazil’s federal structure, in which its twenty-six states retain considerable autonomy, means the central government is not responsible for the prisons or public security in Sao Paulo state. As Power explains, “Lula doesn’t want to get too close and give the impression that the federal government is responsible for public security.”

While the PCC has not played a discernable role in the elections, some see significance in the timing of its attacks. Bruno Paes Manso, an expert on the PCC, tells TIME magazine, “They know authorities are more vulnerable in an election year.” Others think the PCC might have its own political ambitions, but do not specify what sort of inroads the organization might want to make into Brazilian politics.

How effective has the government been in dismantling the PCC?

The matter rests in the hands of the state government, which has been largely ineffective. Though the authorities in Sao Paulo deny it, Marcola told Radio Record, a local station, they negotiated with him to end the May attacks, promising to allow prisoners visits from their lawyers and time out of their cells in open areas. Most experts believe similar negotiations happened in July and August. Leeds says Sao Paulo state is “putting a Band-Aid on a situation with some very serious root causes.”

Experts agree that overcrowding and dire prison conditions are directly related to the rise of the PCC. In most prisons, the number of prisoners has quadrupled over the past twelve years, while the number of guards has only doubled, according to the Associated Press. This shortage is exacerbated by the number of guards who are bribed by prisoners to smuggle them cell phones or other goods. At the federal level, legislation has been proposed to make it a crime to have a cell phone in prison. After the second round of attacks in July, the federal government pledged $46 million for new prisons and surveillance equipment in Sao Paulo.

At the state level, “it’s a bit of a mess,” says Logan. Lula has repeatedly offered to send federal troops to Sao Paulo state, an offer the current governor, Claudio Lembo, keeps refusing. O Estado de Sao Paulo, an influential local newspaper, said if the governor accepted the troops it would show voters “the crisis in Sao Paulo’s security can’t be resolved without Brasilia’s help.”

Does the PCC have ties to other Latin American gangs?

Yes. A high-level relationship exists between the PCC and the Red Command, Rio’s most powerful drug-trafficking organization. A member of the Red Command who some experts think is its leader, Fernandinho Beira-Mar, supplies the PCC’s Marcola with cocaine. Together, they control the drug trade in Brazil’s two largest cities. The PCC’s manifesto refers to a coalition with the Red Command that will “revolutionize the country from within prisons,” but there is no evidence of an ideological alliance between the two groups.

In 2001 or 2002, Beira-Mar introduced the PCC to the FARC, Colombia’s main guerrilla group. The FARC’s interest in Brazilian organized crime is primarily its arms-for-drugs trade, though the FARC has also provided kidnapping expertise to the PCC, which is thought to be responsible for 75 percent of the kidnapping in Sao Paulo. Logan says there is also evidence the PCC obtains guns from Paraguay’s organized crime groups.

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