A slew of recent reports indicates Brazil's PCC is stepping up its criminal activities in countries throughout South America, which one expert says is a clear sign that the fearsome prison gang is looking to become the region's most powerful drug trafficking organization.
The most recent report came out of Paraguay, where authorities announced on May 30 that they had dismantled the largest aerial trafficking network operated by the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC) in the country.
According to Paraguay's National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas - SENAD), the PCC network trafficked up to 5 metric tons of cocaine per month and made as many as 20 drug flights during that time span. The group earned some $3.5 million each month from cocaine trafficking, officials said.
The operation targeting the network, dubbed "Pulp Fiction," resulted in the seizure of 513 kilograms of cocaine and a plane used to fly the drugs, as well as the arrests of two men. The cocaine was confiscated in the Paraguayan border town of Bella Vista Norte.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Paraguay
Meanwhile in Argentina, two official intelligence documents reviewed by Clarín said that 30 PCC members have entered the northern province of Corrientes. The documents said it was not clear why the PCC would penetrate Argentina, but warned "there could be an attack, even against the president."
The alarm caused by these documents was so great that the authorities have doubled the number of security agents protecting Argentine President Mauricio Macri, Clarín reported.
There have also been reports of potential PCC activity in Uruguay and Bolivia. Over the weekend, Brazilian police informed their Uruguayan counterparts that the PCC could be planning a high-powered heist similar to the one that took place in April in the Paraguayan town of Ciudad del Este. In that instance, a group of approximately 50 heavily-armed men believed to belong to the PCC attacked a security company and stole more than $11 million, in what was called the "robbery of the century."
On May 30, Uruguayan Interior Minister Eduardo Bonomi admitted that Brazilians have committed robberies within the country but downplayed the idea that the PCC was preparing such a large heist, reported Montevideo Portal.
"It doesn't seem to me that Uruguay is an important objective for an organization with those characteristics; but it's also not for one to say that nothing is happening," Bonomi said.
And earlier this month, Bolivian Interior Minister Carlos Romero said the PCC and a rival Brazilian prison gang, the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), could be moving weapons through the country. His comments came just days after he said the Brazilian gangs were "spreading out" in Bolivia in order to commit robberies and grab control of the drug trade.
Bolivian authorities believe the PCC and Red Command were responsible for several thefts reported in March and the attempted kidnapping of a family in late April.
InSight Crime Analysis
It is important to note that several of these reports do not contain conclusive evidence of PCC activity, and their veracity has not been independently verified. Still, taken together they paint a picture of an expansionist gang hungry to explore the boundaries of its power.
Indeed, for Bruno Paes Manso, a researcher with the Center for the Study of Violence at the University of São Paulo, the reports would indicate the PCC is staking its claim as the biggest player in the regional drug trade.
"It is clear now that they are trying to become the biggest supplier of cocaine in the South American market," Manso told InSight Crime.
According to Manso, Brazil's neighbors are attractive to the PCC for different reasons. Paraguay is a major producer of marijuana, while Bolivia is an important supplier of cocaine and unrefined coca base. Both types of drugs are consumed in large quantities in Brazil and are important sources of revenue for the PCC, which was born in the prisons of São Paulo but has since grown to become the only gang in the country with a national reach.
SEE ALSO: PCC News and Profile
The PCC has had a presence in both Bolivia and Paraguay for years, although the recent reports suggest their influence may be stronger than previously thought. By gaining a foothold in these countries, the PCC is able to cut out the middlemen in the drug supply chain and thereby increase their profits.
But reports of the PCC setting up operations in Argentina and Uruguay represent a totally different dynamic, Manso said. For one thing, the PCC was not previously known to have operations in either country. For another, they are not significant producers of illicit drugs. In these countries, Manso believes, the PCC is interested in controlling the sale, rather than the production, of illegal drugs.
"Argentina, Uruguay, they are consumer markets," he said.
There are still no definitive answers to how strong the PCC has become outside of Brazil. But given the gang's reputation for violence, just the prospect of international expansion is sure to alarm Brazil's neighbors.