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.
It has since grown into a sizable national and transnational threat. While still maintaining its power base in poorer neighborhoods around Rio de Janeiro, it has a major influence in prisons across the country, with the northern region of Amazonas and western state of Mato Grosso being its secondary strongholds. It also has a foothold inside Bolivia, from where it sources much of its cocaine. Its clashes with the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) and Family of the North (Familia do Norte – FDN) are a regular source of violence. Since 2020, it has also had to fend off repeated incursions and massacres by state forces and by militia groups into Rio favelas under its control.
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 feud has since spilled into neighboring Bolivia, with the two groups fighting for control over drug trafficking routes in the border province of Santa Cruz.
In recent years, the Red Command has also had to contend with militia groups muscling in on its territory, including in Rio de Janeiro, where by 2022 its control had fallen to around a quarter of the city. The loss of control has been partially down to police operations disproportionately targeting favelas held by the group when compared with those under militia control.
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.”
Fernandinho Beira-Mar has maintained strong influence within the group despite being in jail for life and police have continued to target his legacy. In January 2022, a raid killed Lindomar Gregório de Lucena, alias “Babuino,” the Red Command’s alleged leader in Rio de Janeiro and Beira-Mar’s reported foster son.
The Red Command is based in Rio de Janeiro, but has a presence in other parts of Brazil, including São Paulo. It is particularly strong in the northern state of Amazonas and the western state of Mato Grosso, while also operating in Paraguay and Bolivia.
Outside of Brazil, the group operates in Paraguay and Bolivia, and reports in 2022 suggested the group had begun to expand into French Guiana. It is also engaged in an ongoing turf war in the tri-border region between Colombia, Brazil, and Peru, where the group seeks to control the Colombian city of Leticia, border Brazil.
Allies and Enemies
The Red Command worked closely with the PCC, until the groups’ longstanding 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. In 2020, this alliance was definitely shattered when the Red Command attacked the FDN in Manaus, leading to hundreds of deaths. The result was the Red Command becoming the dominant drug trafficking group in Brazil’s Amazonas.
A rising preoccupation for the Red Command is the rate at which favelas under its control in Rio de Janeiro have been targeted for violent police raids. A study in 2021 found that Red Command neighborhoods saw four times the number of security operations than those under militia control, according to the Intercept. The loss of territory to the militias could become a real threat to the group’s territorial control in Rio.
The Red Command is thought to have links to Colombia’s demobilized FARC rebels, and maintains ties with other networks trafficking cocaine from the Andes region as well as marijuana from Paraguay.
The Red Command underwent a rough period after the end of its alliance with the PCC. Its now-enemy formed an alliance with Amigos dos Amigos to contest the Red Command’s territorial control in Rio de Janeiro. However, the Red Command overcame these challenges, relegating Amigos dos Amigos to a second-tier gang in the city.
While still far smaller than the PCC, the CV was estimated to have around 30,000 members around Brazil in 2020. Having taken over much of the drug trafficking infrastructure in Manaus from the FDN, and with a growing presence in the northeast of Brazil, it is now in a strong position to continue trafficking tons of cocaine from Bolivia and Paraguay.
Of more pressing concern are the repeated raids and massacres of dozens of people in favelas under CV control in Rio de Janeiro. These coordinated campaigns to weaken the group may also directly be benefiting rival militia groups.
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