Thirty years ago, an alleged criminal organization called the Black Serpents -- whose existence was never proven -- was used to justify the government’s decision to halt the implementation of a more humane policy in São Paulo’s prisons. What followed was increased repression and the 1992 Carandiru prison massacre, which left 111 inmates dead. And then came the PCC prison gang.
Nine years before the formation of the First Capital Command (PCC) in São Paulo’s prisons, the media reported on the emergence of a criminal group called the Black Serpents, which was supposedly causing chaos in São Paulo’s state penitentiary system. Like the PCC, the Black Serpents organized inmates to take action against state authorities, and represented a serious threat to public security. The main difference between the Black Serpents and the PCC, however, is that the Black Serpents may have never existed.
Few have ever looked beyond the myth. Now, another criminal organization has become the primary nightmare of São Paulo authorities. The Black Serpents served as the main pretext to delegitimize a more humane prison policy that then-Governor Franco Montoro and his Justice Secretary, Jose Carlos Dias, once attempted to implement. Montoro was elected governor of the state in 1982, the first free elections since the 1964 military coup.
As a representative of São Paulo’s yearnings for greater democracy, Montoro’s time in office was marked by his attempts to give a voice to groups previously silenced by force. It was in this context that he created the Solidarity Commissions, meant to represent the interests of São Paulo’s inmates, something previously unheard of in Brazil’s penal system. According to allegations that have never been proven, these committees gave rise to the Black Serpents.
Researchers at São Paulo University’s Center for the Study of Violence are currently studying this little-known chapter in the history of Brazil’s prison violence . Their project is called “From the Solidarity Commissions to the First Capital Command (PCC): Disputes and Conflicts Regarding Inmate Organizations,” and is coordinated by sociologist Camila Caldeira Nunes Dias (a professor at the Federal University of ABC), as well as researchers Fernando Sallo (a professor at São Paulo’s Bandeirante University), Marcos Cesar Alvarez and Gustavo Higa, a professor and a graduate of São Paulo University, respectively.
The Solidarity Commissions
Montoro assumed office as São Paulo’s governor in 1983, amidst Brazil’s transition to democracy. He gave special attention to sectors that sheltered the dictatorship and that needed to be democratized. Hence, his humane prison policy was born, which was manifested particularly in the Solidarity Commissions.
Ex-Justice Secretary Dias spoke to Ponte about the initiative.
“We had a political awareness of respect for human rights, and understood that this respect should be directed at everyone, whether they are free or in prison,” he said. “We therefore established a policy of respect towards prisoners, saying ‘no’ to torture absolutely. The idea behind the creation of the Solidarity Commissions was to allow prisoners to exercise their citizenship.”
According to Dias, inmates elected their representatives, with the stipulation that they could not be imprisoned for serious crimes. They had to have a type of “clean slate.” Those elected represented inmates before the prison directors, judges, and the state department of justice. They were also responsible for organizing events in the penitentiaries.
“There’s always been those who give orders [in prisons]. What we wanted to do was bring forward the one who received the popular vote,” said Dias.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Prisons
The voting polls were open -- even those in the state Justice Department had a say. Nunes Dias -- the sociologist who is coordinating the research at São Paulo University -- said that the Solidarity Commissions were a novel experience in Brazil.
“It was a radical and unprecedented experience in the prison system,” she said. “There have always been leaders among prisoners. The difference was that the leaders of these commissions were accepted, legitimized and recognized by the state. The commissions allowed the establishment of a bridge between the prison population and the government.”
The Solidarity Commissions were created in various prisons across the state, but were most active in the state penitentiary and Araraquara prison (in central São Paulo). According to Jose Carlos Dias, they worked so well that the experiment was almost exported abroad.
“Once I took a visiting criminal law professor from the University of Frankfurt to get to know the Solidarity Commissions,” recalled the former secretary of justice. “The professor was so impressed, he said they needed to apply the idea to German prisons.”
Other sectors of São Paulo society, however, did not share the enthusiastic response of the German professor. The media, prison staff (directors and wardens), judicial authorities and political parties -- including members of Montoro's own party -- all strongly opposed the humanization policy. The pressure against the Solidary Commissions intensified in mid-1984, as reports emerged of a criminal group called the Black Serpents.
Black Serpents: The Media Dispute
Reports of the Black Serpents first emerged in 1984, after an investigation by magistrate judge Haroldo Pinto da Luz Sobrinho. He concluded there was a crisis within the São Paulo state prisons, thanks to a criminal group that operated within the Solidary Commissions. His report was published in its entirety in São Paulo newspaper O Estado on June 23, 1984.
The media echoed this report en masse. Yet among some newspapers, there was a debate over whether the Black Serpents truly existed. Estado and Jornal da Tarde -- both owned by the same publisher -- emphasized the power of the criminal organization and the danger that it represented for the public; they harshly criticized Montoro’s government and the secretary of justice in particular. Meanwhile, newspaper Folha de São Paulo initially made an effort to show there was nothing behind the reports. Later on, they treated the story as a fabrication. The newspaper gave room for the prison guards to weigh in -- they denied that the Serpents existed.
Some headlines help illustrate this polarization. Estado devoted an entire page to the magistrate judge’s denunciations when they first ran the story that day in June. The main headline read: “Government still ignores the Black Serpents.” Other article headlines on the same page said: “Guards live in a climate of fear and rebellion”; “Management marked with contradictions and abuses”; “The reversal of power cannot be allowed.” The page still managed to fit in the full text of Haroldo Pinto da Luz’s complaint. That same day, a headline in Folha read, “Dias orders investigation into complaint over the Black Serpents.”
That same month, the judge magistrate also sent his complaint directly to the magistrates’ superior council, which initiated a thorough investigation into a commission of criminal justice judges, headed by a man called Pestes Braga. After 60 days, the special inquiry commission concluded their investigation and submitted a report. The content of the report was not made fully public, leaving it up to the media to interpret and distribute this content, according to their respective interests.
In general terms, the report concluded that there was an organization called the Black Serpents, just as there were several other gangs in the prisons, but this particular group did not have the political character or the power described by Pinto da Luz.
The mere finding that the Black Serpents were not a total invention led Estadão to publish the following headlines on August 29, 1984: “Silent, Government ignores report”; “Montoro: ‘I still have not received the report’”; “Secretary shifts position, then flees.” Folha was more cautious, and for various days published stories about how the report still hadn’t made its way into the governor’s hands. Only on September 21 did Folha publish “Judges ask for changes within Magistrate's Office,” with the information that the report had criticized the Magistrate's Office -- the very sector where Pinto da Luz worked.
As reporter Ricardo Kotscho wrote at the time, “The plan backfired.” The findings by the special judges commission maintained that the Black Serpents lacked a political and ideological dimension, as was originally reported. The biggest clue that calls into question the Black Serpent’s very existence was Pinto da Luz's informant. Pinto da Luz claimed to have concrete evidence, but his article was based on testimony by a prisoner, Derney Joseph Gasparino, who in exchange for the information, received benefits such as house arrest. And as detailed by Folha -- in the article headlined “The inventor of the Serpents emerges” -- Derney suffered from paranoia, according to psychiatric reports.
For Jose Carlos Dias, the Black Serpents were never more than an invention: “They never existed. It was all a creation by the media and judge Haroldo Pinto da Luz Sobrinho, who made up this organization. Estadão and Jornal da Tarde carried out a real campaign against me, which was actually a campaign against the human rights policy.”
Former Justice Secretary Dias has another explanation for how the story of the Black Serpents came to be.
“This expression came about when a large group of prisons had to be moved from one prison to another, and when they formed a long line, some prisoners commented that it looked like a black snake,” he said. “But there never was an organization.”
Although the allegations were never proven, the rumors generated unbearable pressure and made the Solidarity Commissions unviable. Despite Montoro’s efforts to keep them going, they steadily lost power until they were finally eliminated in 1987. After the government changed in São Paulo, the policy of humanization in the prisons was replaced by a new one: one that was not humane at all.
The PCC: A Prison Gang Myth Becomes a Reality
With public support, the governments of Orestes Quercia (1987 to 1990) and Luiz Antonio Fleury (1991 to 1994) adopted a more repressive prison policy. The inmates no longer had an organization to represent them. The order was to repress any uprising with police force.
Two episodes best represent this period. On February 5, 1989, as a reprimand for an escape attempt, 51 inmates were confined into a room without windows -- measuring 1.5 meters by 4 meters -- within São Paulo’s 42nd Police District. Eighteen died from asphyxiation.
Then, on October 2, 1992, the Military Police killed 111 prisoners in an event later known worldwide as the Carandiru Massacre. The PCC’s subsequent formation in 1993 is arguably one result of São Paulo’s treatment of its prisoners.
SEE ALSO: PCC Profile
“Our research hypothesizes that the disruption of the more human policies -- along with blockading the prisoners’ representation -- generated the social and political conditions that allowed for the PCC’s emergence,” said Nunes Dias. “If the state had respected the law, the PCC would have less fertile ground for its operations. Its discourse would make less sense.”
According to the sociologist, the PCC emerged as a type of representative organization for inmates, but followed a completely different logic from the Solidarity Commissions. While the committee leaders were elected by vote, the PCC leaders imposed their will with violence. While the Solidarity Commissions were involved in a struggle for key rights, the PCC seeks legitimacy within the underworld and -- instead of seeking to build a bridge with the state -- treats the state as its primary enemy. Jose Carlos Dias believes that if he had stayed on, the humanization policy that he initiated during Montoro’s government -- 10 years before the rise of PCC -- could have prevented the formation of the criminal organization.
“If inmates had continued to have representatives in the commissions, there would have been no room for the birth of the PCC,” he said. “The PCC arose when the dictatorship imposed itself.”
*Arnaldo Pagano is a 27-year-old journalist who studied at the University of São Paulo's School of Communications and Arts and graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences. He also studied film scripts at the School of Cinema in Cuba. He has been a journalist with news site R7 for five years. He has also written for UOL and has worked in press offices in the areas of economy and culture. This article originally appeared in Ponte and was translated and reprinted with permission. See Portuguese original here.