A battle for control of a favela between members of the Terceiro Comando Puro and Comando Vermelho offers a perfect illustration of the nature of criminal control and gang conflict in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. While it is popular to conceptualize violence in the city as the result of battles between rival criminal groups and police, battles for local criminal dominance are also key.

“Comando Vermelho Criminals Try to Invade Rio Favela.” G1 Noticias’ January 5 headline sums up media coverage of recent violence in the favela of Para-Pedro, located in the north of Rio de Janeiro. For the past several months, local media have portrayed a series of gangland shootings there as the result of a protracted war between the Comando Vermelho (Red Command – CV) and the Terceiro Comando Puro (Pure Third Command – TCP). While the TCP had controlled the favela for years, the larger and more powerful CV decided to make a grab for the area.

Or at least, that is how it has been portrayed in the press.

A careful reading between the lines, however, suggests that the conflict is more complex. On January 25, Rio’s military police announced the death of the favela’s newly-established CV head, Josiel Gomes de Souza, alias “Toulon.” Officers allegedly spotted the crime boss with two accomplices, riding in a vehicle that immediately fled the scene. Police gave chase, and after a brief firefight Toulon and another suspect were killed.

But local paper O Dia, which spoke with Para-Pedro residents and members of Toulon’s own gang, reported that there may have been an element of betrayal to the story as well. Two weeks before his death, Toulon was allegedly shot by one of his own bodyguards. He had been lying low ever since. According to the paper, a likely motive was fatigue with the gang leader’s constant shifts in allegiance. Before joining the CV, he had belonged to the TCP, and before that he was a member of Amigos dos Amigos (ADA).

SEE ALSO: Amigos dos Amigos Profile

Toulon’s past allegiances clash with popular depictions of gangs in Rio de Janeiro, and to some extent even with the gangs’ own narratives of themselves. The TCP and Comando Vermelho are, ostensibly, sworn enemies. As with the famously bitter Bloods and Crips dispute in Los Angeles, the two gangs have constructed entire organizational cultures around their rivalry. Like fans of rival sports teams, opposing gang members even clash with each other over social media, virtually hurling insults and death threats.

Brazilian anthropologist Alba Zaluar has described the strong identity developed by young gang members in Rio as a kind of hyper masculine “warrior ethos” instilled at an early age. “In the streets where they play they absorb the codes by which they become impervious to the suffering of others, that is, they master cruelty and the disposition to kill,” Zaluar writes. “Their main source of pride or illusion is being part of the armed crew that commits muggings and which battles others, thereby becoming famous for these deeds one day.”

And yet, despite their strong group identity, Rio’s gangs are extremely decentralized. In the words of sociologist Michel Masse, they are “horizontal networks of mutual protection.” Their power rests entirely on control of drug sales, extortion and other criminal activities conducted in the neighborhoods directly under their influence. While they organize under the banners of large-scale criminal networks, this matters less than local criminal dynamics.

Toulon’s battle for control of Para-Pedro, then, is the story of a local crime boss trying to establish a monopoly over profits in the area, not about Comando Vermelho seeking to expand its influence. That the would-be kingpin spent his criminal career shifting from one “brand” to another is proof of the flexibility of gang allegiance, although the fact that Toulon’s own soldiers betrayed him over frustration with the resulting instability shows that some measure of gang loyalty is necessary for survival.

Perhaps no criminal group in Rio de Janeiro illustrates this better than the TCP. As it happens, Toulon’s past allegiances are as mixed as the TCP’s origins. Both were marked by similar ruptures with criminal organizations depending on local conditions.

The Terceiro Comando Puro (TCP) can be traced back to a split within the Comando Vermelho in the mid-1980s, when enterprising dissidents decided to take advantage of ballooning demand for illicit drugs and formed a separate group known as the Terceiro Comando (Third Command – TC). For the next decade, these two groups dominated the drug trade in Rio, battling for control over the drug market in the city’s neighborhoods and surrounding favelas.

SEE ALSO: Red Command Profile

When Amigos dos Amigos (ADA) began to establish itself as a major criminal player in Rio in the late-1990s, it formed an alliance with the TC. Nei da Conceição Cruz, alias “Facão,” a local TC kingpin who oversaw drug trafficking in the northern cluster of favelas known as Mare, objected to the pact with the ADA. In yet another indicator of local dynamics trumping national allegiances, police intelligence indicates that Facão’s primary concern was the effort by ADA leader Paulo Cesar Silva dos Santos, alias “Linho” to edge in on his favela. As a result, in 2002 he formed his own enterprise and declared war against both the ADA and TC.

Facão’s break proved well-timed. In September of that year the CV orchestrated a devastating series of assassinations of imprisoned TC leaders with the help of ADA co-founder Celsinho da Vila Vintem. With the TC effectively decapitated, its members defected to more powerful organizations. Local drug bosses who had been affiliated with the TC switched allegiances to either the ADA or Facão, who took advantage of the incident to name his gang the “pure” TC, or Terceiro Comando Puro.

While the TCP has never been as powerful as the ADA or CV, it has nevertheless managed to fight off both its rivals and keep a strong presence in the north and west of the city, where local traffickers have sworn allegiance to the gang for the past decade.

Understanding the convoluted history of the TCP, and the interwoven roots of Rio gangs in general, is necessary to obtain a clearer picture of the violence in the city. Like popular coverage of the warring cartels in Mexico, analysts tend to focus on inter-gang conflict as the result of competing power structures, at the expense of a broader understanding of the main stakeholders and local resources at play.

It is precisely this local variability that makes the city’s pacification strategy so important. Rio’s Police Pacification Units (UPP) are primarily aimed at delegitimizing local hierarchies by establishing a more firm state presence. For them, victory is about eliminating the conditions that allow local criminal power brokers like Toulon to emerge in the first place, rather than crushing one particular criminal group or another.

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