It was a Tuesday night, January 14, 2020, after “free time” when prison authorities found his body. Geraldo de Souza Pereira Neto, alias “Japonés” (Japanese), was hanging from the rafters of cell number 47 in cellblock 2 of the state prison in Dourados, a city in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in western Brazil.
Souza was a leader of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), Brazil’s premier prison gang. Media reports said he wanted to leave the PCC. This is possible, but it can be difficult, especially for a leader of Souza’s stature.
Prison authorities had gotten word that Souza wanted out and had allegedly offered to move him to a different part of the prison for his own safety. He’d reportedly denied their offer. And now he was hanging from the rafters. It was another sign of the strict control the PCC can exert over its members behind bars.
The prison gang’s control is intimately related to the explosion of Brazil’s prison population. The country’s penitentiary system has been growing at a rate of about eight percent a year for the last 30 years: in 1990, one in every 1,666 Brazilians were in jail, by 2019, the figure was one in every 292. The country now has the world’s third-largest prison population.
Most prisoners are young – about 75 percent are 18 to 29 years old. A majority are poor, Afro-Brazilian, and uneducated: a 2016 survey showed that 14 percent were illiterate and 51 percent had not completed elementary school, according to a June 2016 report by the penitentiary system publication Infopen. A significant number of prisoners are in preventive detention, with about one-third jailed awaiting trial. They are offered few services, such as education or vocational training, with the consequence that prisoners often cycle through the prison system multiple times. Estimates suggest that recidivism rates are between 40 and 70 percent.
The conditions of imprisonment are propitious for the rise and the expansion of prison gangs like the PCC. Prisons nationwide hold 720,000 prisoners in space designed to hold 368,000.
This was certainly true where Souza was killed. When InSight Crime visited the Dourados prison in October 2019 – authorities let us visit under the condition that we would not quote authorities by name or rank – there were about 2,700 prisoners in a structure built to hold 780.
Of these, prison authorities said about 800 were affiliated with the PCC. They were stacked into two cellblocks. Brazil has an “open” prison system, and so as the guards accompanied InSight Crime on a tour, the members mingled freely in the open-air space, each of which was about 30 meters by 100 meters in length, or about the size of a US football field, and two stories high. Each cell had an average of 21 prisoners sleeping in them when it should have 7, the prison authorities said.
Voter prejudice mean that prisons are often the first place to see budget cuts during Brazil’s all-too-frequent fiscal crises, meaning that capacity is stretched and services are very low-quality. Prison life is dull and dangerous, with overcrowding, poor hygiene and rotten food. Rates of HIV and tuberculosis infection are multiples times that of the general population.
Meanwhile, “getting locked up is expensive,” as one scholar told us during our two-year investigation into the prison gang. Given the socio-economic origins of many prisoners, their families may not have the money to take a bus to prison visits, to deliver regular food or medicine to the prisoner, or to forego the prisoner’s income.
Prisons are often merely a location to “deposit” prisoners, with those jailed essentially dropped behind penitentiary walls, within which the inmates run the show. Corruption and intimidation of guards are commonplace, and inside many prisoners have access to weapons, cellular phones and other tools of criminality.
The prison authorities at Dourados told InSight Crime that during the last sweep prior to our visit, the guards had found 187 knives and 80 cellular phones. The authorities did not specify where they had found the weapons and the phones, but adjacent and in front of the PCC were other cellblocks of equal size. These were, according to the prison authorities, rivals of the PCC. They had their own guards who they posted every night to make sure they could react if the PCC attacked them, the prison authorities told InSight Crime.
The prison authorities expected the flow of contraband to continue – there is no X-ray machine to check visitors entering Dourados, the authorities said. What’s more, the walls are low enough for outsiders to toss things like cellular phone batteries into the prison after wrapping them tightly in plastic and tape. Security is lax in the Mato Grosso do Sul penitentiary system in other respects as well. Souza himself had escaped from the prison in the state capital, Campo Grande, for several days in 2016, before being recaptured.
Until the 1990s, descriptions of the prisons suggest that the law of the jungle prevailed. With the evolution of prison gangs like the PCC, conditions improved: Violence was regulated, and abuses were curtailed. The PCC made it possible for families to take a bus to the prisons and guaranteed family members’ safety during visits. This includes Dourados, which is an 18-hour bus ride from São Paulo, where many PCC members are from.
Of course, collective violence and riots were possible and not infrequent, raising the possibility both of criminal against criminal violence as well as law enforcement violence against prisoners. In 2019, for example, violence between criminal organizations in Manaus and Altamira prisons killed 117 prisoners, and the subsequent law enforcement crackdowns, including intervention by a standing federal penitentiary task force, allegedly led to the brutal treatment of prisoners, including torture.
To be sure, Juliana Gonçalves Melo and Natália Firmino do Amarante, in an article published in the journal O Público e o Privado, argue the practice of physical and mental torture is considered a “natural procedure” to keep control of prisons.
In Mato Grosso do Sul, the PCC’s headquarters was Dourados, authorities said, but the organization had spread to other prisons as well, including the one in Ponta Porã, a small city along the Paraguayan-Brazilian border, which InSight Crime also visited. There, prison authorities said the population had gone from 330 in 2015, to over 700 in 2019.
The authorities believed about 100 of the prisoners were affiliated with the PCC. They were trying to keep them contained, but the space was small, and they worried that their efforts were in vain. Although they were technically confined to a specific cell block, the authorities said they had easily filtered other areas because the PCC members and affiliates did not declare themselves as such.
“Brazil’s biggest cancer are the prisons,” one Ponta Porã prison official told InSight Crime.
They also noted how porous the prison was, specifically mentioning the food truck that entered and exited the premise each day as a source of contraband, weapons and telephones. Indeed, the inability of authorities to stop the flow of communications is a perennial problem. The model of criminal organization established by the PCC has in many ways only been possible because of the PCC’s ability to communicate effectively across different prisons, as well as between prisons and the streets.
Much of the law enforcement effort against the PCC has thus been focused on disrupting these communications channels. Cell phone technology enabled the organization to coordinate more efficiently, so law enforcement authorities have alternately either blocked or intercepted cell phone signals.
Lawyers were being used as “carrier pigeons” during their visits to prisons, so law enforcement carried out Operation Ethos in 2016, arresting more than two dozen PCC lawyers. In federal prisons, lawyers’ conversations with top criminal leaders are now routinely recorded and transcribed, and physical contact between lawyers and prisoners is barred.
Still, communications continue to flow. In 2018, several PCC leaders held in São Paulo’s Presidente Venceslau state prison were found to be plotting an escape, which would use African mercenaries, helicopters, rocket launchers and heavy weapons. But for all the cinematic drama of the escape plans, perhaps most creative were the means for communicating those plans. Officials found notes being passed through the prison sewage system. They also seized messages that the spouse of one PCC leader was carrying out of the prison after meeting her husband, ordering the assassination of a prison official and a prosecutor.
Brazilian authorities have since moved many of these leaders to the five federal prisons, including one in Mato Grosso do Sul that InSight Crime also visited. The prison was far smaller than the one in Dourados and located outside Campo Grande. The authorities there said there were nine PCC leaders in the various federal prisons at the time of the visit, October 2019, including some in the Mato Grosso do Sul facility.
The prison resembled a maximum-security penitentiary in the United States. There were several barred and steel-doored entrances. The guards had to use their fingerprints to pass through certain areas, and the facility itself was constructed of several layers of concrete, presumably to stop the type of cinematic efforts to escape once planned by the PCC.
Relatives could only visit three hours per week and lawyers only one hour per week. All communications were monitored, the authorities said, and the prisoners were kept isolated from other prisoners. What’s more, every few months, they moved to another federal prison, the prison authorities said.
But while this may limit their ability to communicate with the organization, communications at state prisons remain porous and frequent. State officials’ plans to block cell phone signals often are met with riots and violence. In Ceará, one such plan led to at least 13 attacks on state offices, and a car bomb was found outside the state assembly accompanied by a note complaining about the plan. In Rio Grande do Norte, a similar plan was met by more than one hundred attacks against public institutions, commanded by the Sindicato do Crime, an opponent of the PCC.
For their part, the authorities in Ponta Porã had a cellphone blocker on the outside of the prison until 2017, but it was removed because authorities said the costs were too high. Lawyers are also able to come and go frequently. Visits with spouses and family are protected by law. The PCC’s communications network remains resilient and strong, suggesting that law enforcement’s only hope is to use it as a source of intelligence, rather than attempt to cut off contact completely.
The result is the PCC’s de facto control of activities on the inside as well as the outside of the prison system. Souza knew this, which was perhaps why he was resigned to his fate and declined to move from the PCC cellblock to another cellblock. There was, he’d surmised, simply no escape.
*This story is part of a two-year investigation into the PCC by the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS) at American University and InSight Crime. Read the complete series here. See full PDF here or download it from the Social Science Research Network.
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