The Red Command (Comando Vermelho) is Brazil’s oldest criminal group, created in a Rio de Janeiro prison in the 1970s as a self-protection group for prisoners. It started out with low-level crimes like muggings and bank robberies, but in the 1980s the group moved into the cocaine trade, working with Colombian drug cartels and taking on a social leadership role in many of Rio’s marginalized neighborhoods.
The Red Command was born out of an alliance between common criminals and leftist militants, when the two groups were thrown together in prisons under the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. The terrible conditions in Candido Mendes prison, on Ilha Grande island in Rio de Janeiro, pushed inmates to band together in order to survive within the system. They first formed a left-wing militia organization called the “Falange Vermelho,” or “Red Phalanx,” but the ideology was soon abandoned as the group became more deeply involved with organized crime, and was dubbed “Red Command” by the press.
By 1979, the group had spread out of the prison and into Rio’s streets. Members who were on the outside were tasked with providing money to those on the inside through criminal activities such as bank robbery, allowing them to maintain a decent quality of life in prison and to finance escape attempts.
The ideas of the Red Command spread to other prisons, and the power of the organization grew. Two decades later, in São Paulo, a similar prisoners’ movement would emerge — the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC).
The Red Command was ideally placed to partner with Colombian cartels when the cocaine trade began to boom in the 1980s, as it had the structure and organization to reliably obtain and distribute large quantities of the drug. Members on the outside now had a clear objective: forming well-armed gangs to take over drug turf in the name of the Command. It gained control of many poor neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro that had been neglected by the state, setting up a parallel system of government inside the favelas and providing employment to inhabitants long excluded from Brazilian society.
By the 1990s, the city’s all-powerful illegal gambling bosses, known as "bicheiros," saw their influence diminish, paving the way for the Red Command to become Rio’s top organized crime group and build up its presence in other states.
In 2005, the Red Command was thought to control more than half of Rio de Janeiro’s most violent areas, though this fell to under 40 percent by 2008. A police pacification program intended to bring a state presence to criminally-dominated areas may have further reduced the group’s influence in the early 2010s, but the security strategy’s long-term effects were limited.
The Red Command is thought to have maintained links to the now largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). Red Command leader Luiz Fernando da Costa, alias “Fernandinho Beira-Mar,” was arrested in Colombia in 2001 while allegedly exchanging weapons for cocaine with the guerrillas.
At the end of 2016, a breakdown in a longstanding alliance between the Red Command and the PCC generated a wave of violence in Brazilian prisons. Over the following year, the conflict between the two groups continued as the PCC sought to reduce the power of the Red Command by forming alliances with enemy gangs as well as co-opting Red Command members with the aim of assuming control over drug trafficking in the group's traditional zones of influence.
The Red Command has a relatively loose leadership structure, and has been described as a network of independent actors, rather than a strict hierarchical organization headed by a single leader.
However, there are prominent bosses within the structure, including Luiz Fernando da Costa, alias “Fernandinho Beira-Mar,” who is currently imprisoned, and Isaias da Costa Rodrigues, alias “Isaias do Borel,” who was in prison for more than 20 years until his release in 2012.
In December 2014, authorities in Paraguay arrested a top Red Command leader, Luis Claudio Machado, alias “Marreta.”
The Red Command is based in Rio de Janeiro, but has a presence in other parts of Brazil, including São Paulo. It also operates in Paraguay and Bolivia.
Allies and Enemies
The Red Command worked closely with the PCC, until the groups' long-standing alliance was broken in 2016.
In addition to the PCC, the Red Command's main enemies are militias composed of active and former security force officers and the Rio-based criminal groups Amigos dos Amigos and the Pure Third Command (Terceiro Comando Puro – TCP), a breakaway faction of the Third Command (Terceiro Comando), which was set up by dissident former Red Command members.
The Red Command maintained an alliance with the Family of the North (Família do Norte – FDN), a powerful crime group based in the Amazon metropolis of Manaus, between 2015 and early 2018, when the two groups broke off their cooperation over internal disputes.
The Red Command is thought to have links to Colombia’s recently demobilized FARC rebels, and maintains ties with other networks trafficking cocaine from the Andes region as well as marijuana from Paraguay.
The Red Command has lost power in recent years, with the rise of rivals such as Amigos dos Amigos, which is rumored to have formed an alliance with the PCC to dispute the Red Command’s territorial control in Rio. But it appears to be expanding its international presence, especially in Bolivia and Paraguay. According to 2013 estimates, the Red Command ships one ton of Colombian cocaine to Brazil each month from Paraguay, which has become a cocaine trafficking hub for Brazilian gangs.
The Red Command's current dispute with the PCC has spilled out of the prison system, sparking violent clashes in Rio and across Brazil’s north for control over lucrative drug trafficking routes and local drug markets.