A new war between Brazil’s two biggest crime groups has contributed to escalating violence across the country, which authorities are struggling to contain due to flawed crime control policies as well as ongoing political and economic uncertainty.
Deepening insecurity in major urban centers like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro has received much attention from both local and international observers, particularly as the military is increasingly being tasked with domestic policing functions.
At the same time, violence is in many ways more pronounced in less populated regions of Brazil, and the situation in some of these areas could worsen amid underworld shake-ups spurred by the gang war, takedowns of major traffickers and other factors.
All this comes against a backdrop of partial paralysis among local and national government bodies dealing with the effects of a recent economic crisis as well as a major corruption scandal that has implicated officials as high up as the sitting president. This context suggests these negative security trends are not likely to be reversed in the near future.
A Tale of Two Cities
Brazil's two most powerful gangs, the Rio-based Red Command (Comando Vermelho) and the São Paulo-based First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC), broke a longstanding alliance late last year, and the ramifications of this development have been playing out in the country's two biggest cities over the course of 2017.
In May, we reported that the PCC-Red Command conflict could be contributing indirectly to an uptick in homicides in São Paulo, the largest metropolis in the Americas.
Brazilian officials attributed the increase in violence to clashes between the PCC and a gang known as the Brazilian Revolutionary Criminal Command (Comando Revolucionário Brasileiro da Criminalidade - CRBC), but we noted that these turf wars "must be considered in the larger context of gang dynamics in the country."
As we wrote at the time, the PCC-Red Command turmoil "has shaken up country's criminal landscape. Smaller splinter groups have emerged in São Paulo, and might be trying to take advantage of PCC's alleged vulnerability, while the gang is busy fighting the Red Command on various fronts."
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Like the PCC in its home city of São Paulo, the Red Command also appears to be affected by complex shifts in gang dynamics in its traditional stronghold of Rio de Janeiro. Authorities have said that the PCC is in the process of positioning itself to try to unseat the rival group from its home turf.
Police reportedly intercepted phone calls made by jailed PCC leaders in São Paulo that "depict an attempt to co-opt criminal actors linked to the Red Command," we wrote in December 2016. "The police official who coordinated the investigation into the PCC’s expansion in Rio, Antenor Lopes, said the group’s strategy is to initially take over the drug trade in municipalities in the state of Rio before moving in on the capital."
Indeed, there may be opportunities for the PCC to find common cause with Rio-based crime groups that have an interest in weakening the Red Command. Changing alliances, however, can lead to violence.
For instance, the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Rocinha essentially came "under siege" in September, reportedly as a result of a falling out between the jailed leader of the Amigos dos Amigos gang, Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, alias "Nem," and his former bodyguard, Rogério Avelino da Silva, alias "Rogério 157."
"Rogério 157 has reportedly broken from the ranks of Nem’s Amigos dos Amigos gang and joined forces with the Red Command ... in an apparent attempt to assert greater control over the local drug trade," we reported at the time.
“This is a classic Rio gangster battle,” George Mason University professor Desmond Arias told us, adding that "the conflict is likely to continue until somebody or some faction prevails and 'consolidates power to work things out and calm things down.'”
Rural Ripple Effects
The security impacts of the PCC-Red Command war have also been apparent in Brazil's more rural northern and western regions.
The year started off with a series of bloody prison riots in northern Brazil, in which more than 100 inmates died in clashes linked to the breakdown of the groups' longstanding alliance and resulting underworld instability.
Reports citing an official intelligence document indicated that the disturbances resulted from conflict over important drug trafficking routes that run through Brazil's Amazon region. "The prisons are a frequent flash point in part because the gangs direct their criminal activities from behind bars," we wrote in January.
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Several months later, in March, Paraguayan officials blamed battles between the PCC and the Red Command for a spate of violence in the towns of Ponto Porã and Pedro Juan Caballero, which serve as important trafficking hubs on Paraguay's border with Brazil.
Journalist Laurie Blair, who has reported on Paraguay’s drug trade, told InSight Crime that the recent violence "does look like a score-settling between PCC and [Red Command]," adding that it could perhaps reflect "a battle for control of marijuana-smuggling routes."
Additionally, some experts have predicted that the July arrest of major trafficking suspect Carlos da Rocha, alias “Cabeça Branca,” could lead crime groups operating in rural regions to wage violent struggles aimed at filling a new power vacuum in Brazil's drug trade.
Elvis Secco, the Federal Police officer who led the operation to capture Cabeça Branca, told us that "he fears the incursion of the PCC could come with an increase in violence, especially around Brazil’s borders, as rival factions fight for control of logistic routes."
A 'National Emergency'
In an October letter to Brazilian governors assembled for a meeting on public security, President Michel Temer labeled escalating violence in the country a "national emergency." However, as we reported at the time, "the government has not yet developed a holistic plan for addressing the complex and intertwined factors contributing to the persistence of violence and crime."
A report we covered in June highlighted the close connection between socioeconomic conditions and violence in Brazil, which disproportionately affects young men from disadvantaged backgrounds. But rather than addressing these issues, crime control policies in much of the country have generally focused on repressive measures that have been associated with human rights abuses, often reducing trust among communities and putting vulnerable populations at greater risk.
This has been exemplified by the crumbling legitimacy of Rio de Janeiro's flagship security strategy, known as "pacification" policing. The effort centered on using military police to establish a state presence in neighborhoods under criminal control, and initially seemed to succeed in bringing down violence. But experts say that the failure to follow up military-style occupations of crime-ridden areas with community-focused outreach hampered its long-term effectiveness.
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Although substantial evidence suggests that militarized security policies have fallen short of their goals by a number of metrics, policymakers seem to lack the political will to change course. (In fact, some 10,000 military personnel were deployed to Rio earlier this year to assist civilian police.)
In part this may be due to a lack of consensus regarding the outlines of potential alternative strategies. For example, a study we covered in November showed that most residents of Rio feel the pacification program has not met its objectives, but "nearly 60 percent of respondents said that they favored keeping the ... program in place, albeit with some modifications to the strategy."
The situation is also complicated by a massive graft scandal that helped tank Brazil's economy. The economic downturn has reduced the resources available for public security spending, and it has consumed the attention of top politicians like President Temer, many of whom have been implicated in the investigations.
With fluid criminal dynamics stretching law enforcement resources thin, the current political and economic context portends a gloomy outlook for Brazil's future security.
Top photo by Silvia Izquierdo/Associated Press