Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, faces a new era of violence and crime, as its “pacification” strategies in response to crime in major cities become a thing of the past.
The president, Jair Bolsonaro, has promised dramatic shifts in the country's security situation, easing legal requirements for purchasing and carrying firearms and softening sanctions for acts of abuse committed by state agents. But so far, Brazil still retains one of the highest rates of police brutality on the continent.
Additionally, the two largest criminal gangs, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho - CV), which have become increasingly involved in international drug trafficking, arms and contraband trafficking, and imposing violent controls within the country’s prisons, remain powerful nationwide. The PCC, in particular, has become a transnational threat, having set up a secondary power base in neighboring Paraguay and being responsible for much of the cocaine flowing from Brazil to Europe.
Militias, largely made up by current and former police officers, are another source of violent crime, extorting whole neighborhoods and committing extrajudicial killings.
The country is currently situated as the main route for cocaine being trafficked to Europe from the Americas and has the second-highest domestic consumption in the world.
Brazil is the largest country in South America. It has a 16,000-kilometer land border and an 8,000-kilometer coastline, whose busy ports are used to ship cocaine to Europe, Asia and Africa.
Brazil shares a border with 10 different countries, including every country in South America with the exception of Chile and Ecuador. Its neighbors include the world’s three largest cocaine producers, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, and the world’s greatest marijuana producer, Paraguay.
Paraguay serves as a hideout for Brazilian criminals and as an operations center for the PCC, which has managed to expand its criminal model into the country. The country also serves as a transit point for marijuana and cocaine trafficked out of Bolivia and as a port of entry for weapons trafficked into Brazil.
Brazil saw a massive exodus of rural dwellers towards the main urban centers of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro from the 1950s to 1970s, which led to the growth of informal settlements known as “favelas.” The concentrated inequality and poverty in the favelas, which lacked a clear state presence, made them ideal breeding grounds for organized crime.
In the 1950s, a powerful criminal mafia began to form around the “bicho,” or the animal game, an illegal gambling racket that became hugely popular in the country. The bosses who ran the game built up large fortunes, laundering their profits through legitimate companies. Eventually, they branched out into contract killing and prostitution rings, buying off police and politicians. The power of the bicheiros, or animal game bosses, would peak in the 1980s, when they began laundering money through Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival.
Meanwhile, organized criminal groups also began to form amidst the strong state repression and the brutal squalor of the country’s prisons. Indeed, Brazil's organized criminal groups got their start in the prisons and only later grew to conquer the streets. The country’s two most powerful gangs, the Red Command and First Capital Command (PCC), both began in the prisons, in the early 1970s and the 1990s before, respectively, hitting the streets of Rio De Janeiro and São Paulo.
During the 1970s, with the entrance of large quantities of cocaine into Brazil, links began to emerge among the bicheiros, drug cartels and local traffickers. As the global cocaine market boomed in the 1980s, Brazil attracted South America's most prominent drug producers as a transit point for drugs bound for European and US markets. Colombian cartels moved into Brazilian territory, attracted by its location and the availability of precursor chemicals, smuggling cocaine into the country in base form. They began to setup laboratories close to the points of sale and disembarkation point for shipments headed to European and US markets. Then the Colombian cartels moved into Brazilian territory, drawn by its location and the availability of chemical precursors, trafficking the drug into the country in the form of coca paste. They started setting up laboratories near sale and disembarkation points headed to European and US Markets.
Under the premise of fighting drug gangs, vigilante groups, made up of current and former members of the police, known as militias, began to emerge in urban areas. Today these vigilante groups represent an important criminal actor and they continue to control and exercise their power in different cities. These groups went from being a problem in Rio de Janeiro, to being a national security concern. They operate their own criminal rackets, including extortion schemes and kidnapping in at least 11 municipalities within the metropolitan area of Rio state.
The national homicide rate, that for many years was among the highest on the continent and in the world, went from being 30 for every 100,000 inhabitants in 2017, the highest reported in the history of the country, to 19.7 in 2019. The regions with the most hotspots for violence and homicides continue to be located in the north and northeastern parts of the country, due to the war and dispute between the criminal organizations, Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), the Comando Vermelho (CV) and their criminal allies, Familia do Norte (FDN), Guardiões do Estado and Sindicato do Crime.
Since President Jair Bolsonaro came to power in January 2019, the country saw a drop in homicides in 2019, although the government has been plagued by accusations of corruption and ties to militia groups, while environmental crimes have ravaged frighteningly large swathes of the Amazon, with the perpetrators seemingly enjoying near-complete impunity.
Brazilian police are divided into federal and state forces, which include military and civilian forces. The Federal Police are responsible for investigating international and state crimes. The Military Police are responsible for enforcing public order within the states. The Civilian Police manages criminal investigations on the state level.
Brazilian police forces have long been accused of abuses and corruption, particularly in relation to the spread of misinformation about the extrajudicial killings of civilians as legítimate acts of self defense.
The controversial “pacification” strategy implemented in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro since 2008, is now on the decline. Pacifying Police Units (Unidades de Policía Pacificadora - UPP) were deployed to the most violent favelas in the city. They managed to regain control of territories run by criminal groups and violence rates dropped for a few years. While somethings improved, the UPPs have high disapproval ratings and are widely suspected of corruption and abuse of authority within these communities. The violence, the drug trafficking and the control of illegal enterprises, according to some in collaboration with UPP agents, seem to be taking over once again.
In recent years, especially under President Bolsonaro, police have exercised a "license to kill," particularly in Rio de Janeiro, where killings rose to all-time highs in 2019 and early 2020, although they dropped rapidly by the end of the year.
Brazil has 339,300 active members in its armed forces, the largest in Latin America. The military’s primary role is enforcing border control. In accordance with the Strategic Border Plan, which started in 2011 and cost $6.3 billion over a span of eight years, the former president Dilma Rousseff deployed thousands of troops to secure Brazil’s borders. Nevertheless, one of the recurrent points brought up by border authorities, is regarding the lack of manpower and how vulnerable this makes the country's porous border.
Brazil’s judicial system is slow, corrupt and generally ineffective. In the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness Report, Brazil ranked 92 out of 144 countries in regards to judicial independence. According to official statistics, only 6 percent of homicides that take place in a given year are resolved. There exist federal and state courts, as well as courts specialized in military, labor-related and electoral matters. The country’s highest court is the Supreme Federal Court (STF).
Brazil’s prisons are overcrowded and face an imminent crisis. In 2019, the country had approximately 812,000 inmates, the third largest prison population in the world. The model is divided between federal and state prisons. From behind bars, the different criminal organizations control the traffic of drugs, cigarettes and other criminal economies.
While the PCC has a strong presence and/or controls illegal activity behind bars in São Paulo, and at least six other states across the country, the heated dispute between the Familia do Norte, the Comando Vermelho, and the PCC has also made its way into the prisons, which are now important battle fields. The enormous prison population in these precarious detention centers serves as a breeding ground for the proliferation of organized crime.
In 2019 and 2020, the breakdown of the prison system was evidenced in the continuation of the violent massacres that happen with alarming regularity in Brazil's prison system.
There are approximately 8.5 million firearms being circulated in Brazil. It is estimated that around 3.8 are in the hands of criminals. 6.8 million weapons are legally registered to be in the hands of police, private security companies and citizens with a license to carry.
It is believed that the majority of the firearms on the black market have been supplied by Brazil’s illegal arms industry, the second largest in the western hemisphere. The widespread availability of illegal weaponry has contributed to the high number of gun-related deaths in the country, which corresponds for 72 percent of total homicides. A new law, signed by President Bolsonaro in May 2019, loosened restrictions on carrying firearms would open the door for some 63 million Brazilians to legally purchase guns.
Brazil is currently the main transit point for cocaine heading from the Americas to Europe. While an exponential decline in homicides was reported in 2019, there are indications that the supposed calmness and decrease in violence is due more to a peace agreement between criminal groups, than to an actual response to the current government’s approach to the security crisis facing the nation.
In 2020, homicides rose slightly during the pandemic situation into consideration, with the country's northern and northeastern regions substantially responsible for this increase. A turf war between the CV and FDN in Manaus saw over 150 die in January and February alone. A break with previous security policies may have helped the homicide rate increase in cities such as São Paulo. However, the state of Rio de Janeiro welcomed historically low murder rates in 2020.
On the other hand, the Jair Bolsonaro government’s laxity regarding gun controls and the actions of state forces, with reports of increasingly scandalous reports of violence and abuse of authority, promise to continue radicalizing the current government’s militant vision for confronting the social and criminal crises facing the nation.
The PCC is now firmly established as one of Latin America's principal criminal threats, having expanded and established criminal hegemony in much of Brazil, parts of Paraguay and into Bolivia. The CV remains a strong national force, especially in the country's northern regions, while the Familia do Norte may never recover from the assaults it received in 2020.
Finally, militias, paramilitary-style groups made up of current and former police officers and firemen, have rapidly expanded their territorial control and criminal governance in Brazil, buoyed by reports of strong ties to political officials.