Brazil's two most powerful criminal organizations have broken a long-standing alliance and are fighting each other in a battle that authorities warn could spill onto the streets of Latin America's most populous nation.
The Brazilian magazine Época recently published the text of a letter authored in September by leaders of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC), Brazil's largest and best-organized crime group.
In the letter, which was disseminated to various nationwide factions of the São Paulo-based gang, the PCC leaders declared war on their long-time partners, the Rio de Janeiro-based Red Command (Comando Vermelho) -- Brazil's second most powerful criminal group.
"For us in the PCC, peace was always more viable," reads the letter, which goes on to explain that the gang was breaking its alliance with the Red Command because the latter had formed partnerships with PCC enemies, some of whom had attacked and killed PCC members.
The break between the PCC and the Red Command came into bloody focus in mid-October, when deadly clashes between factions of the two gangs broke out in several prisons around the country.
Then, on October 22, a confrontation between PCC and Red Command factions at a prison in the state of Acre left four inmates dead and 20 injured. The same day, 11 murders -- at least two of them by beheading -- occurred in the town of Rio Branco where the prison is located. Authorities blamed the Red Command for the killings.
Now, some officials are warning that the conflict between the two groups could extend beyond the prison system.
"What I can say is that every action has a reaction," said Lincoln Gakiya, a local prosecutor in São Paulo state who spoke with the news outlet Exame. "That is to be expected, and it is already running in WhatsApp chats that the Red Command sent out an order [saying] that it is going to hit relatives of the PCC, since members of the Red Command were killed in front of their relatives" during the recent prison riots.
"This could cause problems in the streets," Gakiya continued. "So there is homework to be done by the states in terms of identifying in the prisons who is part of both factions, to separate them as required by law, and with regard to the street, redoubling attention and intelligence services to prevent a wave of attacks."
Gakiya said he does not believe that the conflict will spread to urban centers like Rio and São Paulo, since the Red Command and PCC maintain little presence in each other's traditional strongholds.
However, other observers say that some areas of Brazil's north and west -- which border on major drug-producing nations like Paraguay, Peru and Colombia -- are more likely to see conflict between the two gangs as they dispute important trafficking routes. According to El País, several states have already seen recent indications of this dynamic.
InSight Crime Analysis
Thus far, the conflict between the PCC and the Red Command appears to be largely confined to the prison system. However, a detailed October 25 article from Época notes that the shake-up in the Brazilian underworld could contribute to violence outside of prisons as well.
In particular, the report mentions the Amazon city of Manaus, an important drug trafficking hub where the PCC has made inroads in recent years and has come into conflict with a Red Command-allied group known as the Family of the North (Família do Norte - FDN). According to Época, FDN members have spoken about "spreading terror" both within and outside of prisons, and they have issued death threats against prosecutors, judges and local security officials.
Still, at this early stage many questions remain unanswered about how the ruptured alliance will affect Brazil's security situation.
"It all depends on how they decide to have this conflict," Desmond Arias, an associate professor at George Mason University who has studied Brazilian gangs, told InSight Crime.
"It certainly doesn't look good," he added, referring to the situation in Brazil's notoriously violent prison system.
SEE ALSO: Red Command News and Profile
"To the extent that you might have prisons that are housing mixed populations, or that a Comando Vermelho prisoner would end up in a PCC prison -- or vice versa -- that could create a very dangerous situation in those places, especially for the individuals who are in the minority in those locations," Arias said.
"In terms of drug smuggling routes, that's another question. How intensely will they decide to fight over, say, shipments coming into the country? That depends on how much they want to escalate the conflict."
SEE ALSO: PCC News and Profile
However, Arias said that he believes the fighting is unlikely to devolve into a massive nationwide bloodbath.
"My guess is that there will be more friction in the Brazilian underworld…but not necessarily that there will be a huge explosion of violence in the country," he said. "I would say that a lot of the conflict will probably end up focused in prisons."
At the same time, Arias expressed concern that Brazil's tenuous economic and political situation could complicate efforts to mitigate the conflict.
"I worry about those issues filtering down into the prison system or into the states," he said.
"It's a delicate time if they really are going to fight. Public authorities are likely going to face some challenges coordinating, given the things that have been going on politically in Brazil in recent months."