Recent operations in Brazil against the country’s two leading gangs, the PCC and Red Command, show that authorities are varying up their tactics but may still struggle to have a long-term impact.
In mid-September, Brazilian police and prosecutors carried out large-scale raids nationwide targeting Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV) members and properties. Numerous suspected gang members were allegedly part of a longstanding money-laundering scheme that had involved over 200 million reais ($36 million) in the last year, Rio’s police announced on Twitter.
The two principal gang leaders named in the scheme were Elias Pereira da Silva, alias “Elias Maluco,” and Márcio Santos Nepomuceno, alias “Marcinho VP,” both of whom are jailed in the Catanduvas federal penitentiary.
SEE ALSO: Profile of Red Command (CV)
According to a police statement, the two men led the scheme using dozens of different bank accounts to launder “money obtained…through drug trafficking, the buying and selling of weapons and ammunition, theft of goods, of vehicles, of commercial establishments and financial institutions, among other crimes.” The owners of a number of companies were also arrested for allowing suspicious transactions to pass through corporate bank accounts.
Within days of the operation, Elias Maluco, one of the best-known CV leaders, was found dead in his cell on September 22, with reports pointing to suicide although a full investigation is underway. Authorities also stated that a suicide note was found in his cell, although any link between his death and the recent raids has not been confirmed.
This was not the only move made by authorities against Brazil’s biggest gangs in recent weeks. In late August, around 1,100 police officers were mobilized nationwide in a wide-ranging operation against CV’s main rival, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC). Raids happened simultaneously in 90 Brazilian cities with hundreds of alleged gang members being sought.
Similarly to the CV raids, this operation sought to attack the PCC’s financial underpinnings. “Our objective…is asset seizures, cracking down on money laundering, and identifying leadership,” Elvis Secco, coordinator of the federal police’s drugs, weapons, and criminal gangs division, told news magazine Veja.
The operation reportedly blocked 252 million reais ($45.3 million) in financial assets belonging to the PCC and discovered that 210 “high-ranking PCC members” already in prison had been receiving monthly payments due to their position in the gang or for having carried out specific missions, including executing public officials, news portal UOL reported.
InSight Crime Analysis
There have been recent indications that Brazil’s judiciary and security forces are seeking options other than direct confrontation with gangs inside favelas. While police killings initially rose during the first months of 2020, especially in São Paulo, Brazil’s Supreme Court banned police raids inside favelas during the coronavirus lockdown.
Next, these operations against the PCC and CV have sought to go after the financial operations that their leaders are able to continue running, despite being behind bars, with the help of associates on the outside.
“Patrols inside certain poorer neighborhoods were only finding low rungs of the criminal hierarchy. So there is some merit in the police and ministries working together to understand the finances of the gangs, where they keep their money, how they move money, where they make purchases,” said Bruno Paes Manso, a researcher at the University of São Paulo who co-wrote a book, The War – PCC’s Rise and the World of Crime in Brazil, charting the rise to power of Brazil’s largest gang.
“The goal is to weaken these groups financially, instead of carrying on a violent war against them,” he told InSight Crime, adding that these recent raids were the largest of their type ever carried out.
However, while the amounts of money involved are significant, these are unlikely to be more than short-term roadblocks for gangs of this size. In 2019, the São Paulo Attorney General’s Office estimated the PCC’s earnings stood at around 800 million reais ($145 million) a year.
And what’s more, the decentralized structure of these prison gangs means that weakening them across the board is very difficult.
“The PCC in particular has empowered leaders outside prison for some time now. It has decentralized its infrastructure and decision-making because its main leaders were sentenced to long sentences inside maximum-security prisons. This has been necessary to maintain an agile infrastructure, but always within the rules and protocols of the gang,” said Paes Manso.