On June 10, 2016, Jorge Rafaat was driving his armored Hummer when he pulled up to a stoplight in central Pedro Juan Caballero, a Paraguayan city at the border with Brazil.
Part-contraband trader, part-drug trafficker, part-legitimate tire and autoparts businessman, Rafaat was known as the “King of the Border.” But not everyone was happy with his reign. With him were two vehicles full of his own bodyguards.
Still, they were relaxed. It was about 6:30 p.m. Darkness had settled, but they were about 100 meters from a regional police office and 200 meters from a local police station, where Rafaat had many allies. There is a pharmacy on one corner, a clothing store on another. It is, in other words, a typical residential street.
What’s more, this was Rafaat’s territory. In March 2016, his bodyguards had chased would-be assassins who were casing Rafaat’s house in Paraguay across the border into Brazil. And Rafaat had used his allies in the police on more than one occasion to arrest and deport his enemies.
However, as they waited an SUV sped up and blocked their path. From the side of the car, a muzzle of a 0.50 caliber machine gun popped through a specially made opening and began firing at a furious pace. The power of the nearly 14-centimeter bullets pierced the armored glass of the Hummer, hitting Rafaat at least 16 times. He died at the scene, slumped over his wheel. Five of his bodyguards were injured. Police found 200 shells.
The attack was believed to have been carried out by the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) – Brazil’s most formidable prison gang – in association with Jarvis Chimenes Pavão, another border drug entrepreneur. The intent, it appeared, was to eliminate a key chokehold over the movement of drugs across the border near the Paraguayan border city of Pedro Juan Caballero.
It required intelligence gathering and a coordinated ambush by multiple attackers in at least four vehicles, several of whom fled from the scene on foot. Later, authorities determined that the assassin was a former military gunner who was allegedly contracted by various organizations, among them the PCC, Pavão and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV), another Brazilian prison gang. It was a formidable alliance, but one that would not last.
Within weeks of Rafaat’s death, more than three dozen of his associates had also been killed along the border, O Estado de São Paulo reported. Things quickly fell apart with the PCC’s other allies as well. Rafaat’s assassination was followed by a series of murders of men connected to Pavão, as well as a number of Pavão’s closest confidants, including two nephews, an uncle and his lawyer.
The PCC-CV truce also fell apart shortly after the assassination. The two had long respected one another’s criminal space, and the CV had operated along the Paraguay-Brazil border for years prior to the PCC’s arrival. The battle would soon spread throughout the entire Brazilian prison system and eventually to nearly the entire country.
With the killings, the PCC was able to take control of this drug route and weaken the CV’s access to eastern Paraguayan smuggling routes. Indeed, this attack appears to have been part of a larger strategy that had been discussed amongst its leaders since at least 2010 when, according to researchers Bruno Paes Manso and Camila Nunes Dias, the PCC began discussing what they called “Project Paraguay.”
Over the previous years and continuing after Rafaat’s assassination, the PCC had expanded significantly across Brazilian prison systems beyond its traditional home base of São Paulo, as well as into neighboring Paraguay’s prisons. It had also increasingly sought international contacts to guarantee a steady flow of drugs and some contraband, rather than depending on border smugglers like Rafaat.
“The PCC had come to realize how important it was to reduce or eliminate intermediaries in the drug distribution chain,” Paes Manso and Dias write in their book “A Guerra” (War) about the criminal faction. (Note: Paes Manso was a researcher on the project.)
Still, although the attack against Rafaat was a success, the PCC’s expansion was stretching the organization to its limits, a fact made more evident in another, equally explosive operation.
On April 24, 2017, a leading private security company, Prosegur, saw its headquarters in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, overrun by criminals who made off with at least $11.7 million in cash. During this cinematic “robbery of the century,” as it was termed by Paraguayan authorities, as many as five dozen heavily armed gunmen spent three hours attacking the Prosegur building.
The attack began with a diversionary attack on a police station, as well as the burning of more than a dozen cars and trucks on key roads leading to the Prosegur building. Police who sought to approach Prosegur found their way blocked, with one group of robbers setting up a 600-meter perimeter around the security company headquarters to stave off police, while a second group worked their way into the building. Police officers who insisted on approaching were met by heavy weapons fire, including from a 0.50 caliber machine gun, as well as sharpshooters who may have been using infrared sights.
The bank robbers also used explosives to blast through armored doors and vault walls, and hand grenades and heavy arms against Prosegur guards and police. Once the safe was breached, the robbers seized the money and began their flight, with some running away into Paraguay while other groups fled into Brazil by car and boat. After their escape into Brazil, at least three of the robbers were killed and fourteen arrested, including known PCC members. More than $1.5 million were seized by police. But the bulk of the money was never recovered, and the remainder of the robbers disappeared.
Perhaps most surprising about both of these cases is that they were entrepreneurial, undertaken by PCC leaders without the active support or even pre-approval of the top PCC hierarchy. In the Rafaat assassination, the PCC leadership in São Paulo appears to have been unaware of the plan until it was concluded, and the assassination was allegedly directed by the top local PCC leader in Pedro Juan Caballero, Elton Leonel Rumich da Silva (aka “Galã” or “Galant”), Paes Manso and Dias say.
The Prosegur theft was also extremely sophisticated, including the use of decoy attacks and drones, but it may have been carried out by top PCC members acting in their personal capacity and for their own personal profit. One of the alleged perpetrators killed by police during the pursuit was the head of the Sintonia Geral da Rua (Street Level Leadership).
Another had been convicted four times and connected to a rebellious PCC faction inside a São Paulo prison some years prior; the suspect had also allegedly pioneered efforts to explode armored vehicles of the type Prosegur used. A third was named as a top leader in the Sintonia de Paises, which is the part of the organization that helped manage the PCC’s efforts outside of Brazil. At least two others were also connected to the PCC, including one who was connected to the murder of a prison guard and another who was connected to drug trafficking.
Still, many others had no known PCC connections, and it is unclear whether top PCC leaders were aware of the theft before it was hatched. It was, in a way, vintage PCC. The group allows, even encourages, entrepreneurial criminal spirit. It is part of their ethos and laced into their rhetoric. “Crime fortifies crime,” they like to say. That has certainly been true during their expansion along the Brazil-Paraguay border.
Prior to the Rafaat assassination, Paes Manso and Dias chronicle how the group struggled to place and maintain leaders in Paraguay who were both high quality and loyal to the jailed leadership in Brazil. The tension had led to the displacement and orders to murder at least one high-level PCC brother, they report in A Guerra. Looked at from this perspective, the Rafaat assassination and Prosegur robbery could be seen as a happy middle ground of the type the PCC has long been able to establish with its members: a measure of independence in return for loyalty.
Conversely, it could portend the struggles to come as the PCC tries to corral its rank and file in increasingly far-flung places. Indeed, a number of leaders have been killed in recent years for acting too autonomously. Most spectacular in this regard was the targeted assassination of Rogério Jeremias de Simone, Gegê do Mangue. Gegê perhaps the second or third most influential PCC member at the time who was himself an early envoy to Paraguay to help the organization establish itself.
Eventually, after Gegê took control of the PCC’s drug routes from the Brazilian northeast to Europe, Gegê and one of his partners began embezzling from the organization. Gegê was also allegedly charging a controversial additional fee on cocaine trafficked through Santos.
On February 15, 2018, Gegê and his partner are believed to have been killed after their helicopter set down in a native tribal reserve in Ceará. But while the Gegê killing shows there are unwritten limits to each leader’s autonomy, within these grey lines the top PCC leaders have significant freedom as they work to achieve organizational objectives as well as to profit personally from the immense criminal network provided by the PCC. That blurry line all but guarantees future internal squabbles, especially as the group continues to expand.
*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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