HomeNewsAnalysisNegotiating with Brazil’s Prison Gangs: Short-Term Fix, Long-Term Problem
ANALYSIS

Negotiating with Brazil's Prison Gangs: Short-Term Fix, Long-Term Problem

BRAZIL / 2 SEP 2014 BY BENJAMIN LESSING* EN

A deadly riot in southern Brazil illustrates how inhumane prison conditions and powerful prison gangs create an explosive situation, which authorities are sometimes tempted to resolve by negotiating with gangs like the First Capital Command (PCC).

A recent prison riot in Brazil's Parana state left five prisoners dead -- two by beheading -- 25 wounded and Cascavel prison in shambles. (Of seven inmates initially reported missing, six turned out to have been long since transferred to other prisons.) After a tense 45-hour standoff, officials finally met inmates' demands to address overcrowding by promising to transfer some 800 of the prison's 1,040 inmates to other facilities. Just to be certain, prisoners continued to hold two guards hostage (of only nine on duty at the time of the riot) until the transfers were completed.

The incident follows numerous recent cases of prison-related violence throughout Brazil, all of which bore the fingerprints of the country's most powerful criminal organization, the First Capital Command (PCC). While Cascavel prison appears not to have been entirely dominated by the PCC, as are the vast majority of Sao Paulo prisons, the organization clearly had a strong presence: its name was found painted on the prison walls and on banners hung by rioting inmates during the standoff. Indeed, the brutal murders of five prisoners are thought to have been score-settling, possibly ordered by local PCC leaders. Equally telling, and particularly worrisome, was the use of a classic PCC tactic, simultaneous attacks beyond the prison walls: while the riot flared at the prison itself, affiliates burned a bus and a car belonging to the city government right in front of city hall, and spray-painted "PCC" nearby for good measure. 

SEE ALSO: PCC Profile

Instances of prisoner abuse and neglect have driven similar episodes of violence in far-flung corners of Brazil, and in each case, PCC franchises or affiliates have been involved. Authorities, journalists and scholars are beginning to connect the dots: execrable prison conditions and prison gangs are an explosive mixture.

Why is that? Criminal networks like the PCC are far more sophisticated than the name "prison gang" suggests. They are not so much a rapacious band of thugs as a kind of inmate shadow government, enforcing codes of conduct that bring order to prison life and make most inmates better off. The allegiance this inspires then helps gang leaders orchestrate collective resistance to guard abuse and official neglect.

The threat to state authority posed by prison gangs lies partly in their ability to project power beyond the prison walls, controlling street-level violence in ways that force officials' hands. The PCC in particular has perfected the art of synchronized attacks, like the citywide shutdown of Sao Paulo in 2006, of which the bus-burning in Cascavel was a small but potent reminder. These tactics amplify prisoners' leverage over state officials. As a Parana state official put it, "our best option was to negotiate."

Inhumane prison conditions, however, also play a key role in empowering prison gangs. Gross neglect and abuse foments mistrust, desperation, and rage among the larger inmate population, which sophisticated prison gangs can channel into organized revolt. More importantly, mistreatment of prisoners hands prison gangs perfectly legitimate motives for such revolt, if not for their violent means. This allows politically savvy groups like the PCC to present themselves -- cynically but not totally inaccurately -- as human rights defenders, and can potentially undermine the state's own legitimacy.

States generally regard negotiation with criminal groups as taboo -- far more so than negotiation with insurgents and other overtly political groups. Yet as the line blurs between criminal coercion and legitimate protest, negotiation comes to seem more acceptable. Add to this prison gangs' proven ability to reduce street-level violence and it is understandable how officials in Brazil, as well as El Salvador, have sought to craft deals with imprisoned gang leaders.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador's Gang Truce: Positives and Negatives

These deals have saved lives and pacified urban war zones, but they also strengthen prison gangs and set precedents that could encourage similar groups -- there is a taboo for a reason, after all. In the short run, the official in Parana is probably right: negotiation is the best option. Over time, though, without a fundamental shift away from the mass incarceration policies that fuel prison gangs' growth and propagation, states may find themselves ceding ever more ground to increasingly powerful -- and increasingly political -- prison-based criminal networks.

*Benjamin Lessing is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

BRAZIL / 22 MAY 2013

A joint operation between Brazilian and Paraguayan police has captured five alleged members of Brazil's feared Red Command (Comando Vermelho),…

PRISONS / 14 MAY 2012

A GlobalPost report sheds light on the crisis in Latin America's prisons, highlighting several alarming trends in prisons throughout the…

BRAZIL / 23 NOV 2016

More than 30 lawyers in Brazil have been arrested for their alleged links to one of the country's most powerful…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Emergency First Aid in Hostile Environments

24 SEP 2021

At InSight Crime's annual treat, we ramped up hostile environment and emergency first aid training for our 40-member staff, many of whom conduct on-the-ground investigations in dangerous corners of the region.

THE ORGANIZATION

Series on Environmental Crime in the Amazon Generates Headlines

17 SEP 2021

InSight Crime and the Igarapé Institute have been delighted at the response to our joint investigation into environmental crimes in the Colombian Amazon. Coverage of our chapters dedicated to illegal mining…

THE ORGANIZATION

Exploring Climate Change and Organized Crime

10 SEP 2021

In July, InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley moderated a panel for the Climate Reality Project's regional series of workshops for young climate activists in the Americas. The week-long event…

THE ORGANIZATION

Gearing Up a New Class of Interns

3 SEP 2021

InSight Crime is readying its newest class of interns – from universities in Europe and the Americas – to begin investigative work on a number of high-impact projects. For the…

THE ORGANIZATION

Tracking Environmental Crime in the Amazon

27 AUG 2021

Next week, InSight Crime launches an investigation – conducted with Brazilian think-tank the Igarapé Institute – on the sophisticated organized crime structures and armed groups that…