Bala na Cara (Bullet in the Face - BNC) is a prominent criminal group headquartered in Brazil's southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, but with a presence in southern Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina. The group is known for its frequent use of violence and controlling the city of Porto Alegre's drug trade. In addition to trafficking cocaine and marijuana, the group controls the supply of crack in prisons in the area.
The BNC was founded in the Bom Jesus neighborhood of Porto Alegre in the 2000s. Its name - which translates as "Bullet in the Face" - is reportedly derived from the violent method the group uses to kill its enemies.
In its early days, the BNC principally focused on robbing jewelry stores and banks to fund arms trafficking. It also worked as an armed wing that committed contract killings for Rio Grande do Sul's most important criminal organization, Os Manos.
From the early 2010s, drug trafficking became the group's main source of revenue as it expanded across Porto Alegre. It used extreme violence to claim drug sales points, committing homicides and massacres to target rivals. These attacks also resulted in the deaths of civilians caught in the crossfire.
This sparked a hostile response from local gangs in the municipality. In 2016, criminal groups in Porto Alegre banded together to create the "Anti-Bala" coalition in an attempt to take down the BNC. In January 2016, the coalition kidnapped and beheaded a BNC member, leaving his head in Bom Jesus and his body with a message in Porto Alegre's Mário Quintana neighborhood.
Alongside its local growth, the BNC has also started to build a presence in South American countries that neighbor Brazil. From around 2015, the group moved into Paraguay, where a number of its leaders have been arrested. There, they are involved in drug trafficking in borderland zones, like the city of Pedro Juan Caballero.
The group has also made attempts to move into Uruguay's drug trade. It was gaining territory and control over drug trafficking along the Brazil-Uruguay border until the Os Manos challenged this in 2018.
In contrast to its main rivals, the BNC does not have a centralized structure with a singular, defined leader.
Instead, the group is made up of individual cells falling under local leadership. Police believe that at least four leaders set overarching rules for members of the gang to follow, but that leaders of each local faction give more specific orders. This decentralized structure has hindered police investigations.
In 2016, police arrested José Dalvani Nunes Rodrigues, alias "Minhoca," in Paraguay. He was the alleged leader of a BNC faction that moved 500 thousand reais (over $97,000) per week. The local leader was allegedly responsible for drug trafficking in northern Porto Alegre, particularly in the Mário Quintana and Rubem Berta neighborhoods. He also allegedly ordered homicides and coordinated arms sales.
Ernesto Andrés Vargas Villanueva, alias "Cachorrinho," is reportedly a leader of the group, overseeing operations for the group in Uruguay. He is a known trafficker of drugs and arms who is currently behind bars for his role in a number of homicides.
Tiago Soares da Silva, alias "Pequeno," is considered another leader of the group. He was one of Rio Grande do Sul's most wanted fugitives before his March 2021 arrest for his alleged involvement in a number of homicides.
Outside of Brazil, the BNC is involved in drug trafficking in Paraguay, particularly in the borderland city of Pedro Juan Caballero where a number of its members have been arrested.
It is also active in Uruguay, which sits just across the border from Rio Grande do Sul. The group once controlled drug trafficking in Uruguay's northern borderland city of Rivera. However, in 2018, Os Manos began to challenge this. As the battle continues, bloodshed has been seen across Rivera.
The BNC also maintains a presence in Argentina's northeastern province of Misiones.
Allies and Enemies
The BNC's main rivals are the "Anti-Bala," or "V7 gang," a coalition of gangs formed in retaliation to the group's violent expansion in Porto Alegre. This rivalry was ignited after the Anti-Bala kidnapped and beheaded a BNC member in 2016.
Another rival of the BNC is the Os Manos gang, Rio Grande do Sul's most prominent criminal organization. Os Manos are reportedly not involved in the war waged against the BNC in Porto Alegre. However, as both groups have expanded into the interior of Rio Grande do Sul and neighboring countries, they have clashed.
The BNC also counts the Os Tauras gang as one of its rivals in Uruguay.
Authorities have had little success in curbing the BNC's growth, and efforts by enemies to bring down the group have so far had a negligible impact. This suggests the group will continue to control drug trafficking in its current strongholds and may take over the trade in other strategic hubs.
The group is likely to maintain a localized focus on Rio Grande do Sul, and borderland zones shared between Brazil and Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay.
If it makes new attempts to expand further afield, bloodshed will inevitably follow, as has been the case following the group's expansion into Uruguay's city of Rivera.