“Plata o Plomo” is an overused phrase to describe the way criminals threaten officials and civilians to ensure compliance with their wishes. In one Brazilian case, it seems more appropriately applied to the police.
At 7:43 pm, June 8, 2018, Corporal André Willian Barbosa of the São Paulo Military Police’s Tactical Force picked up his phone and called “Revolta” (Revolt), a drug dealer for the criminal organization First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital-PCC).
The PCC is Brazil’s largest criminal gang. Its headquarters are the country’s jails, but it also controls hundreds of drug sales points, including one that Revolta managed in the southern part of the city.
Just prior to the call, Barbosa’s tactical force had captured one of Revolta’s operators, “Bonequinho” (Handsome). Every state in Brazil has military police. They are the front-line troops, and Barbosa’s tactical force is the equivalent of SWAT, busting up drug dens and going after Brazil’s most wanted.
But Barbosa wasn’t calling Revolta to gloat about the Bonequinho capture. Barbosa had a business proposition, and he had taken on a nickname, “Bolado” (Beefy), to disguise his identity for calls like this.
BOLADO: It’s crazy, but the boys did alright. We have Bonequinho in our hands, brother.
REVOLTA: Those guys are fucked, Bolado, those guys are fucked.
BOLADO: He’s fucked. It’s going to be one (1,000 reais) for each capture, brother. And we’re going to start working Folga as well, brother.
Revolta knew what “working” Folga meant: that the tactical force would hit other drug sales points, arrest other members of Revolta’s team, and confiscate drugs and other incriminating evidence. To avoid that, Revolta would have to pay.
REVOLTA: I know. We have to look for a better way. I know.
BOLADO: I already told you. It’s one-and-a-half (1,500 reais) and afterwards, we’re headed into the Bolo.
REVOLTA: I know. I already told those guys, but they didn’t answer.
“Those guys” were Revolta’s bosses, one of whom had told him sternly, “We’re not going to pay them anymore,” a remarkable illustration of just how predatory the police were in the area. Revolta had little choice but to try and stall future tactical force operations, while Barbosa continued to apply the pressure.
BOLADO: Okay, cool. I’m just letting you know. Since we left early, we could still make it back there.
REVOLTA: I know man. It’s a mess, and…I didn’t want this to be happening there. And I understand.
BOLADO: So there it is. It’s not pretty. But that’s okay.
REVOLTA: Okay, cool.
The conversation between Barbosa and Revolta is one of dozens described in an over 500-page São Paulo-indictment against 53 members of the military police working from the 22nd Military Police Battalion in which authorities recorded 82,000 hours of telephone conversations. The PCC is known for its violent, coercive tactics. But what is clear from the calls is that it is the police, not the prison gang, that is the predatory criminal group.
And it is not just the tactical force. From beat cops to supervisors, and from individuals to entire teams, the pattern is clear: extorting drug peddling operations was an effective way to pad their salaries. In fact, prosecutors claimed the police actions made them part of the PCC.
“The role of the military police in the criminal organization…was clear,” the indictment reads. “Don’t repress trafficking, but rather facilitate it, keeping police cars clear of sales points, giving information about police operations in the area, or altering public documents so drugs are not confiscated and traffickers are not imprisoned.”
But the telephone calls tell a different story. It was not so much the police played a role in executing the crime but rather a role in letting the crime be committed—for a price, of course. Regular payments to ranking police were mostly in the 300 reais range, but they could reach as high as 50,000 reais (about $9,000) to free a contact who had been selling rifle ammunition. The practice was so common that one policeman even asked for an advance because he was going on vacation. The trafficker refused, telling them he’d get his share when he got back.
Payments were paid to individuals and to teams, often in accordance with rank. The payments were picked up by the policemen themselves or dropped by intermediaries at a pharmacy, a bathroom of a gas station, a restaurant, or even at the drug dens themselves.
Police also demanded one-time payments when they captured people, as Barbosa and his tactical unit had, captured drugs or other incriminating evidence.
In one case investigators tracked from April 15, 2018, military police confiscated a backpack with drugs, as well as a ledger with names and roles, as well as drug sales and debts listed on it. About twenty minutes later, “Vinicius,” the drug trafficker whose property the police had confiscated, called Corporal Heverton Nascimento Neves, who called himself “Bomba,” and was part of the team who’d picked up the backpack, presumably from a raid on Vinicius’ apartment.
VINICIUS: Hey, what’s up? What do I need to do?
BOMBA: Well, brother, to get your documents back quickly, it’s 10 [10,000 reais], man.
BOMBA: Yeah, brother.
After Vinicius made a vain attempt to lower the price, Nascimento gives him more details of what’s in the ledger.
BOMBA: So, we have those brothers there, do you understand? Written down here, complete names, what they do, or area or role. Everything is there brother, from drug sales, how much someone owes, someone who took from I don’t know who, the person who spoke to I don’t know who. Everything is there, you understand?
Prosecutors say Vinicius agreed to pay the 10,000 reais, and while the police handed in some drugs they had confiscated from the scene of the crime, the police report omitted Vinicius’ name and did not mention the ledger.
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During the investigation, authorities also noted other police-driven crimes. One of the calls recorded a policeman called “Carequinha” telling a trafficker to “cut the neck” of a guy who had not paid them even though he’d told his boss he had done so. The trafficker is at first confused because his stash had been raided by police despite thinking the bribe had been administered.
TRAFFICKER: So, but when we paid, you hit our ‘store’ and seized the drugs.
CAREQUINHA: Who did you give the money to? Who did you give the money to? Someone has conned you, man.
TRAFFICKER: Hold on, I am the dude who responsible for the stores. [And] I had sent the money through Marcelo who would pay you. If he didn’t pay, I can’t do anything, you know.
CAREQUINHA: Right, so cut his neck, cut his neck.
Prosecutors say that Carequinha orders the trafficker to kill the alleged thief of the bribe money, Marcelo, since the latter could have lied about the seizure and had taken the drugs for him.
Based on an anonymous tip, the São Paulo military police’s internal affairs began investigating the group in February 2018. In December 2018, in an operation that spread across three neighborhoods, authorities arrested 53 members of the battalion’s tactical force or about ten percent of the entire precinct.
Although most of those involved were located in the state of São Paulo, the search and seizure operations covered 19 municipalities in São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro.
*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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