The PCC has become one of the most complex and important criminal organizations within Latin America, with over 30,000 members in Brazil, an active presence in Paraguay and drug trafficking tendrils around the world.
It achieved this by sticking to a core ideology, preferring collaboration instead of confrontation, according to Bruno Paes Manso, a journalist and 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.
InSight Crime spoke with Paes Manso about the First Capital Command's (Primeiro Comando da Capital -- PCC) model of "criminal cooperation," which has been effective in Brazil and could power its international expansion.
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InSight Crime (IC): How much of the PCC's power has come from coopting responsibilities that traditionally belong to the State, such as keeping order within prisons?
Bruno Paes Manso (BPM): The prison system is very overcrowded in São Paulo, for example. Two years ago, I entered a cell with space for 12 people but it held 50 prisoners, with all their belongings, and just one bathroom. There is also not enough food or clothing for all prisoners.
Those who can organize this chaos become crucial and the State cannot do it.
The PCC enters the prisons and can ensure (some form) of justice and equality between the prisoners. They help manage this chaos, which could explode at any time.
But authorities know how to set certain limits. There seem to be agreements but there is also a lot of tension. It is like a chess game between the two sides.
IC: This strategy appears to have been extremely successful, given the group's expansion and control over its members. Could the PCC provide a criminal business model for other groups to follow?
BPM: Yes, as the drug trafficking market is highly lucrative. As a business model, the strongest element which could be replicated elsewhere was the creation of strict criminal protocols that are respected in order to maximize earnings. That is the PCC's strength: create order in an informal, illegal market that by its very nature is usually chaotic.
IC: As well as taking over spaces abandoned by the State?
BPM: Yes, but there are elements to bear in mind. Even in poor neighborhoods, the State must be present providing education and healthcare. Drug trafficking offers a career path and a very seductive "identity" to young men. It offers them a "warrior'' form of masculinity, which the State must contend with.
The trick is how to convince these young people differently. How do we let them build their dreams outside of drug trafficking? How can we enter this crisis and build a context which opens doors for these people?
IC: How much money has the PCC been able to earn in recent years?
BPM: The last good estimate, which I think was from 2016, spoke of around 200 million reais per year, which is close to $40 million. This is still very low compared to the earnings of larger cartels.
But it is very important to understand the difference between the PCC, as an organization, and the enormous network of PCC members, who earn money on their own and pay a monthly fee to the group. This is the difference that sets it apart from the cartels.
The cartels act more as a company and their earnings are tallied up as they would be within a large corporation. The PCC is a network of partners who can earn their own money and then dedicate resources toward the costs of the group's inner workings.
IC: This level of earnings and operations is revealing about the PCC's capacity for negotiation and diplomacy.
BPM: Yes, it certainly provides a more regimented approach to the drug trafficking market. Its drug sellers are trained to sell drugs, for example. This helps to pacify drug trafficking as it becomes a win-win for all sides. The market helps to ensure violence isn't necessary.
Creating order has long been the PCC's goal: earn more money, reinvest it and expand its contacts and opportunities.
So those $40 million dollars are earned annually in exchange for investing in the rights of its members, in lawyers, in the families of prisoners, in everything it does to ensure the PCC keeps functioning.
IC: Has this format of cooperation, which pays attention to the needs of its members while granting them economic autonomy, helped the PCC avoid fragmentation?
BPM: The strength of the PCC is the intelligence of its structure. If a leader dies, the group continues. The death or incarceration of any one member doesn't have a major impact because the structure is strong. It is like a cooperative of partners helping each other out. And as a cooperative, there is a concentration of resources used to invest in the rights of those partners, while granting them greater flexibility than other criminal groups.
SEE ALSO: First Capital Command (PCC) Profile
IC: The PCC has succeeded in establishing a presence in Paraguay. Can you describe this wing of the group in comparison to those operating in Brazil?
BPM: Their presence in Paraguay is an increasingly important strategic step. When the group expanded there, the PCC had access to large volumes of drugs. The big problem with microtrafficking in Brazil is that selling small amounts of drugs to the consumer can lead to a lot of violence and death.
But when the PCC accessed large volumes of drugs, things changed. It stopped having so many problems on the streets, its sales became much more lucrative. For this reason, the PCC's relations with its partners in Paraguay are very strategic.
IC: There have been recent reports about the PCC buying properties to produce marijuana in Paraguay. How much focus do you think the PCC is placing in gaining control of drug production?
BPM: I don't think their strategy in terms of marijuana in Paraguay is to buy property and be large landowners. They want to invest in publicly available land so that if authorities try and identify who owns the marijuana production, the plantations cannot be associated to a specific person. That is commonplace when it comes to marijuana production in Paraguay. People plant in plots of land that cannot be linked to a specific name or person.
The PCC is not buying land directly, it is investing in plantations and financing large loans [to develop production]. The group is acting more like a capital investor, collaborating with the people who work the land.
There are people in Paraguay who know the country's criminal landscape, the PCC sees these opportunities and provides them with capital. This fits with the PCC's business model.
And the PCC's participation in marijuana production in Paraguay appeared as it expanded in the country. The group discovered opportunities to develop, which could benefit their drug trafficking business in Brazil.
IC: What effect could this have on drug routes in the region and their relationship with other criminal groups?
BPM: That is difficult to say. Looking at the PCC as a business, there are always routes that allow for the distribution of drugs into Brazil. If these are stable, it does not need to expand. But if the PCC sees opportunities to create new routes, access new markets and increase earnings, it will absolutely seize them.
IC: What has the government done to stop the PCC and how effective have they been?
BPM: Brazil has many people in jail and not enough space for them all. The PCC arrived to organize and reduce the number of deaths in prisons. The group succeeded in reducing the amount of problems there, so it became very important for keeping a balance in the prison system.
The challenge for the state is maintaining that balance.
SEE ALSO: PCC’s Rapid Expansion Topic of Debate at InSight Crime Conference
IC: The relationship between the PCC and the State is very delicate, then?
BPM: Yes, because while the PCC manages the prisons, which is good for the government since it means the prison system won't implode, the PCC has grown within prisons over the last 20 years. They have developed certain freedoms on how to do business within that system. There is a certain tolerance but also limits that cannot be crossed. There’s a fine balance between the two sides.
The state does not allow this situation to exist, exactly. The PCC is very creative and finds ways to circumvent the limits set upon them. Authorities also has many other problems, there aren’t any resources, there isn’t enough police intelligence, etc.
IC: Given this evolution that you’ve described and the future of the PCC, do you think the group has reached its full potential as an organization?
BPM: There are further possibilities for expansion because the gang has a very flexible structure that is not about competition. The intelligent aspect of their structure is their quest for partnerships. The PCC offers its services to drug traffickers so they can sell more. They don’t compete for markets, they build distribution networks of partners so that everyone can sell more drugs. This structure is smart because it’s flexible, horizontal and has a strong base inside prisons.
IC: Thinking about the possible future of the PCC, will the group be able to expand its operations even more?
BPM: The PCC, like other criminal groups, knows that controlling territory comes with very large and costly problems. To control a marijuana plantation in Paraguay, for example, you have to know the locals, their traditions, the police, and you have to have relationships with local institutions. It’s a very expensive investment that doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense that a group of people from the favelas of São Paulo can come to have relationships in a foreign territory with foreign people. I don’t think the organization has ambitions like that.
*This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.