On November 14, 2016, about 12 p.m., Carlos Magno de Souza was driving along the asphalt streets of Peruíbe, São Paulo, past the single-story houses that dot the seaside city when two military police stopped him. It’s not exactly clear why they detained his car, but inside they found a telephone, which they determined was stolen by checking the serial number against a database of stolen cell phones.
They brought Magno to the station where another agent recognized him. He was “Chucky,” she said, the alias of a leader in the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), the country’s largest prison gang and most feared criminal network. The military police, as it turned out, had been tracking Chucky for months, tapping his and other associates’ telephone lines to build a case against them for drug dealing.
What they found during their investigation was revelatory, illustrating how, from their home base in the São Paulo state prisons, the PCC moved drugs on a regional level. But it also demonstrated how operators like Chucky kept control over the organization’s various moving parts.
Chucky, along with two others in the organization who were also enveloped in the investigation, were what the PCC calls its “disciplinas.” The disciplinas are PCC members “designated to resolve various problems, from lovers’ squabbles, fights, debates, thefts, etc., in areas dominated by the [PCC],” the case file reads.
The idea of a disciplina emerged where the PCC did: inside the jails. Before the PCC was created, in the late 1990s, the jails were chaotic and violent. The PCC sought to tame them. As Bruno Paes Manso* and Camila Nunes Dias write in their book, A Guerra, the fight for control of the prisons was vicious. The PCC would decapitate rivals or pull their hearts from their chests, then hold up these body parts like trophies. They called this early period of their history, “the revolution.”
Once the São Paulo jails were under its command, the PCC sought to create more order. It organized where people slept. It designated leaders of the cell blocks who assigned people to clean the cells, among other duties. It began to resolve disputes between cellmates, ending fights over provisions, accusations of theft, petty jealousies, disruptive behavior, and drug abuse, especially of crack cocaine, which was eventually prohibited in PCC-controlled prisons. In some cases, the PCC were able to make peace. In others, they had to reassign someone to a different cell.
These were the origins of the disciplina. When the disputes became serious, they would eventually call for a “debate,” a proceeding that resembled a trial. The aggrieved party set the punishment, unless it was an internal PCC matter—then the disciplina established the sentence. The PCC eventually developed an internal rulebook with 45 “statutes.”
“Above all, loyalty, respect and solidarity with the Party,” Article 1 read, using the group’s moniker for itself.
The PCC established rules for the general population as well. No rape. No theft. No child molesters in PCC-controlled areas. From its onset, the PCC thought of itself as much a social and political organization as a criminal organization, and when visitors came to prison, there was no swearing, no flirting with someone else’s wife or partner, and there were dress codes (the inmates’ shorts had to be below their knees), Paes Manso and Nunes write.
The PCC eventually created ways to fund themselves. On one phone call chronicled in the case against Chucky, the disciplina makes reference to debts from the “rifa” (“raffle”), an internal system whereby the PCC collects from its members and others who are incarcerated for a raffle, and monthly quotas for those who have been released from jail or have served their sentences known as “cebola” (onion). The disciplina makes sure the members pay these funds, which provide everything from legal services to travel funds for PCC members’ relatives to visit them. It is part of a larger system of what are called “sintonias,” or committees, which deal with issues ranging from welfare packages to legal assistance to drug dealing to general administrative services. As the PCC became more established outside of prisons, the disciplina began to deal with issues in the streets. In the case of Chucky, for example, this meant collecting debts. In one part of the case file, they talk about one member who owes the “Partido” (Party) 2,000 reais (about $600 in 2016). Another person owed 27,000 reais ($8,200), according to the court file.
The PCC collected from other drug traffickers, which had become a key source of revenue for the organization. In fact, it was not a coincidence that Chucky was connected to the drug trafficking arm of the organization. From the beginning, the disciplinas exerted control over their own and other drug trafficking operations, Paes Manso and Dias say, so they could help fund their operations.
Over time, the concept of a disciplina spread to police other parts of the underworld. In effect, the disciplina monitors activities of other criminal groups, ensuring, for example, they are not unnecessarily abusing their victims. They have also held trials outside of the prison when someone is murdered without cause or in cases of theft and rape. The punishment can run from banishment from the neighborhood to death, possibly administered by the victim’s family. And they resolve disputes between criminal groups.
The disciplina has become the core of what makes the PCC different from many other criminal organizations. As Bruno Paes Manso and Camila Nunes Dias write, the disciplina was at the core of how the PCC established a kind of “morality” amongst criminals. “The PCC got stronger as it became recognized as an authority capable of being a regulatory agency of crime,” they write.
Acting as a referee to calm tensions in the underworld earned the group legitimacy, especially as violence dropped, first inside the prisons and eventually throughout São Paulo state, the PCC epicenter. The PCC talked about it in mythic terms, how the disciplinas helped its members and others “become aware.” And around the country, there appears to be a direct correlation between PCC control and lower levels of violence.
This social role is noted in the case file as well: The PCC also mediated domestic squabbles, fights amongst neighbors, abuse of authority, and other more mundane disputes, it says. The group prioritized anything that might call the attention of the authorities and get in the way of its business operations, it added.
The PCC, however, has its limits. In one instance described in the case file, the unit discusses a prisoner who is complaining that his wife is not visiting him. The PCC, the caller says, cannot get involved in personal matters and cannot oblige the man’s wife to visit him.
*Bruno Paes Manso was an investigator on this project.
*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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