A recent prison crackdown in Brazil has sparked a violent response from the country’s most powerful organized crime group, but the government's measures lack long-term focus and are unlikely to secure any lasting prison improvements or future security gains.
Authorities in Brazil’s São Paulo state transferred Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, alias “Marcola” or “Playboy,” the chief leader of the country’s most dominant organized crime group, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), to a high-security federal prison in mid-February, Folha de São Paulo reported.
Another 21 alleged PCC leaders were also transferred to federal prisons across Brazil in the capital Brasília, and also in the cities of Porto Velho and Mossoró. Public security officials were warned that the PCC may be planning to carry out attacks in response. Authorities responded by mobilizing more than 20,000 São Paulo police officers as part of a security operation to secure the city.
The decision to transfer the PCC boss Marcola comes after authorities uncovered and thwarted in November 2018 a $100 million plan to break the leader out of jail using hired foreign mercenaries and military-grade helicopters, in addition to missile launchers and high-powered weapons, Folha de São Paulo reported at the time.
The government said in a statement that "isolating [criminal] leaders is a necessary strategy for confronting and dismantling criminal organizations," according to the BBC. São Paulo prosecutor Lincoln Gakiya said the transfers and isolation of PCC capos causes "disorientation" and a "lack of coordination" among gang members.
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This is just the latest move from authorities during the early tenure of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro to clamp down on the country’s gang-controlled prisons.
In early January, for example, northeast Ceará state’s new top prison official, Luis Mauro Albuquerque, promised to stop segregating the prison population based on gang affiliation and crackdown on cell phone use, which authorities say would make it harder for gang leaders to maintain order both within and outside of prison.
The gang response was rapid and violent. The PCC and Red Command (Comando Vermelho), along with their local rivals in the Guardians of the State (Guardiões do Estado – GDE) and Family of the North (Família do Norte – FDN), called a truce and carried out hundreds of attacks primarily on infrastructure in dozens of municipalities across the state.
The PCC’s opposing reactions to the prison measures are likely tied to geography. The PCC dominates in southern Brazil and its home state of São Paulo, where the group’s base is strongest. The PCC’s place in northern Brazil, on the other hand, is much more tentative. The group is working to expand into the region and battling rivals in an effort to win control over illicit economies.
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Brazil’s PCC has adapted and at times responded with extreme violence to the government’s past attempts at clamping down on the control they wield inside the country’s prisons, and the latest measures are likely just a band-aid solution that doesn’t fully address underlying causes of crime and violence or the deep-seated problems within the prison system.
“Moving prisoners around seems to spread the problem rather than curtail or eliminate it,” said Desmond Arias, a professor at Baruch College City University of New York and the author of two books on Brazil. “Moves like these have been tried for years with limited efficacy.”
The very PCC leaders that authorities are transferring, such as Marcola, have organizing expertise and leadership skills that make them effective organizers within prison. As they are moved to other prisons, authorities run the risk of reproducing unaddressed dynamics that existed in other prisons, according to Arias.
SEE ALSO: Brazil News and Profiles
What’s more, the PCC relies on a decentralized network rather than any one person or group of so-called leaders. Marcola and the other transferred PCC leaders will again be placed in a Differentiated Disciplinary Regime (Regime Disciplinar Diferenciado) -- a special arrangement of tighter prison isolation. But even this extreme isolation of top members, coupled with the murders of other high-level leaders, has done little to sway the group’s power and ability to operate both inside and outside prison walls, or expand regionally.
Inmate transfers and crack downs on cell phone use, while potentially effective in the short-term until such groups adapt, are ineffective policies by themselves in the long run. Instead, a multifaceted approach with a long-term focus on root causes is needed to curtail the PCC’s control within prisons. Prison transfers may destabilize the PCC’s prison leadership for a time, but they ultimately do nothing to improve the corruption, overcrowding and underfunding in Brazil’s prison system, which has created the perfect conditions for the PCC to establish order and criminal governance within them.
“The PCC has in many ways served as a kind of organizing force within the prison system,” said Matthew Taylor, an associate professor at American University whose worked extensively in Brazil. “It’s hard to see how these [transfers] will actually influence the way that prisoners behave, especially in states where the PCC is dominant.”