Over the last few years, the PCC’s continued expansion into Paraguay has seen Brazil's most powerful criminal group leave behind its roots as a prison gang to become a transnational organization, with alarming consequences.
InSight Crime spoke with Camila Nunes, an expert on the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC) from the Federal University of ABC in São Paulo, about the group’s expansion, the prisons where it originally began, its current role on the streets of Brazil and the criminal hegemony that the PCC is seeking to build in Paraguay.
InSight Crime (IC): What is the most important element of the PCC’s DNA?
Camila Nunes (CN): The PCC formed within the prisons of São Paulo, the most important component to understand is the group's links with the jails. But since the early 2000s, the group has moved beyond the prisons and is now involved in drug trafficking and robberies of financial institutions and security transfer companies.
In São Paulo, the PCC maintains almost total control. It is the only important group in the district’s criminal economy. But it has also been actively expanding its presence and recruiting across Brazil, along the borders with Paraguay, Bolivia and to some limited extent, Argentina.
IC: Why was this gang formed in the prisons and not on the streets?
CN: Firstly, due to a rise in the prison population while basic living conditions deteriorated. Secondly, for the prisoners to protect themselves, to know that they wouldn’t be murdered in the middle of the night. The PCC gives them that certainty, it guarantees them security. And thirdly, due to police violence.
IC: When the PCC moves into favelas and neighborhoods, how does it build its networks?
CN: When already christened members of the PCC get out of prison, they return to the neighborhoods they grew up in. And although they may not have been traffickers before going to prison, they try to reduce the violence related to drug sales. Drug trafficking was too violent in São Paulo in the 1990s and early 2000s. But PCC members brought an ideology, an idea of unity, and a transformation started. They started to tell traffickers the same thing that they told prisoners: “We are not going to fight, we are going to talk, we are going to make decisions together, we are going to get organized.” When the PCC reaches a new neighborhood, it starts to organize the criminal economy.
IC: And it doesn’t run into resistance?
CN: In some areas, yes. They try to convince people without violence that their way is better. But there are always those who don't listen and those people are eliminated. Many were murdered because they did not accept the new dynamic of the PCC. This doesn't mean drug traffickers are forced to join the PCC but they are forced to follow the group's code of conduct and rules about drug sales.
IC: How did the PCC become a wholesale distributor of drugs?
CN: They regulate local drug trafficking and manage a constantly expanding network of drug traffickers by christening new members inside São Paulo's prisons and putting them to work once they get out. With the evolution of violence inside prisons and favelas in the city, many prisoners and residents began seeing it was a better option to have the PCC in power. It's better to allow drugs to be sold without finding a body in the street every day.
SEE ALSO: PCC News and Profile
IC: How did the PCC’s criminal portfolio start to diversify, especially into money laundering?
CN: The PCC changed the way it kept its money. In the 2000s, a police operation identified hundreds of personal bank accounts in which small quantities of money were deposited. There was a lot of money all told. The individuals were paid in exchange for letting the PCC use their personal bank accounts. The police also identified the use of international money transfers sent from currency exchanges.
On other occasions, the PCC buried the money, in quantities of up to one million Brazilian reais (approximately $236,000), which they refer to as “minerals.” It is also known that the PCC uses gas stations, used car dealerships and even public transport operators to launder money.
IC: Does the PCC collect fees from members?
CN: The PCC collects a monthly fee from members outside prison. Today, it stands at about 1,000 reais (around $233). There are said to be around 10,000 PCC members in São Paulo alone.
IC: Members that are in jail don't need to pay?
CN: Those that are in jail do not pay the monthly payment. They often have to sell raffle tickets and meet a monthly figure. The raffle is another source of income for the PCC. They draw lots for people to own houses, apartments, cars and more.
IC: How important are the drugs as a source of funds?
CN: Drug sales are another source of funding for the PCC but it is more complicated. Part of the drug sales provides personal income to the PCC member making the sale, and the rest is collective. But it is very difficult to know the difference.
The cash flow works. In every drug sale territory, or "plazas," has one man in charge of discipline and cash flow. He sends the profits to a superior. In the way, a PCC boss in the city of São Paulo will report to his superior, responsible for the whole state of São Paulo?
The International Expansion
IC: How does the PCC guarantee its cocaine flows overseas?
CN: The main advantage is that the PCC guarantees the trafficking of drugs from the port of Santos, Brazil's largest, in the state of São Paulo. It can guarantee the transport, flow and security of drugs out of that port.
IC: The PCC also operates much like Central American gangs of drug transports with the difference that the Brazilian market is huge.
CN: The drugs headed to the Brazilian market, particularly São Paulo, are often sold by the PCC or its members. But I do not agree with analyses that say the PCC exports drugs to Europe, to countries like Italy or Spain. I don’t believe the PCC is behind that. These exporters are mainly Italians, Mexicans and Colombians. The PCC could be a partner because the drug route starts in ports controlled by the PCC, like Santos. And when large quantities of drugs are involved, specific agreements have usually been made about those shipments. While it is believed there are PCC members in Europe, like in Spain, Portugal and Switzerland, there must be very few.
IC: How did the PCC begin to expand from Brazil to other countries in South America?
CN: The PCC didn’t have a strategy to expand to Paraguay in particular. In 2008, I identified a member of the PCC that went to the Bolivian border and then later to Paraguay. This was part of a PCC plan to reduce the number of intermediaries in the drug trafficking chains. This allowed them to better control the transport of drugs, access better prices and prioritize drug flow to the São Paulo market first and then to other cities.
I have a 2010 document from PCC leaders that mentions a "Paraguay Project," which has the idea of the PCC controlling the flow of drugs from Paraguay and establishing a base of operations in that country. Since 2010, the PCC has sent a lot of members to Paraguay to build this power base.
IC: What is the PCC’s current situation in Paraguay?
CN: The PCC has advanced a lot in Paraguay but has seen many members incarcerated or killed. The height of the group’s presence there was between 2016 and 2017 but it is not as well-situated there today. The PCC has raised criminal violence in Paraguay and the group is not looking to form agreements with Paraguayan authorities to avoid violence.
Beforehand, traditional trafficking groups in Paraguay fought amongst themselves, there was less robbery, car theft or common crime. But the PCC members were different and crime has started to rise. This worries the Paraguayan government.
And the PCC has still not managed to obtain territorial control along the border. They have a strong presence there but they do not have control. Where they are growing more and more is within Paraguay’s prisons. At least 500 members of the PCC have already been arrested in Paraguay.
IC: What is the PCC’s relationship like with other criminal groups in Paraguay’s prisons?
CN: There have been clashes. Last June, the PCC started a riot in the San Pedro prison which ten inmates from the Rotela Clan from Asunción were killed. This regional drug gang clashes with the PCC often. The PCC cut the heads off the victims, Paraguay has never seen anything so violent in its prisons. There were also disturbances in other prisons, like that in Tacumbú, which is the largest prison in Paraguay.
IC: Does the PCC also have a strong presence in Tacumbú?
CN: No. According to the authorities with whom I have spoken, there are some members of the PCC in Tacumbú, but they are Paraguayan members of the group.
SEE ALSO: Paraguay News and Profile
IC: So can we say that the PCC is now an international gang?
CN: The Paraguayan government usually deports detained PPC members. This is because if they realize that if they jail a Brazilian PCC member in Paraguay, this individual lays down roots. As of two or three years ago, Paraguay started to deport Brazilian PCC members back to their home country without them spending time in the prisons. However, there are now a lot of Paraguayan PCC members that they cannot deport.
IC: We have spoken about the political and economic elements of the PCC. Does the PCC currently have a strong militaristic component?
CN: There is a militaristic component. The PCC has a group, the Sintonía Restrita, that is responsible for military operations, bank robberies, heists of security transport vehicles, attacks on prisons to stage jailbreaks. They use high-caliber weaponry, like the .50.
IC: Where do they get their weapons from?
CN: Either from Paraguay or from the United States. One incident in 2017 traumatized Paraguay when the PCC attacked securities transport company Prosegur in Ciudad del Este. The country had never seen so much violence: more than 40 individuals were involved in the action. The police did not even know how to react, as they were not used to the use of such weapons. This prompted measures by the Paraguayan government to try to limit the number of PCC members in Paraguay.
SEE ALSO: Brazil News and Profile
IC: Considering the present moment, what would permit the PCC to remain the strongest group in Brazil?
CN: The PCC’s strength lies in recruiting from prisons as it can constantly become stronger. Our countries do not know how to respond to issues of violence beyond locking people up which also plays to the PCC’s ability to strengthen. There is no point in imprisoning more and more people because it only makes them stronger and drug trafficking can be managed from behind bars. Considering the poor conditions of the prisons and the lack of opportunities, I believe that the PCC will always have people interested in becoming part of the criminal network.
IC: What is the PCC’s primary weakness?
CN: The more it grows, the more opportunities there are for the group to start fragmenting. When a group grows too much, it is difficult to keep control it. But it has not happened yet. As opposed to Red Command (Comando Vermelho - CV), the Familia del Norte and other groups, there have been no divisions within the PCC. Whenever there have been conflicts within the PCC, the group has eliminated all those participating in the conflict. By killing them all, the PCC’s unity is maintained.
*The interview transcription was edited for greater clarity and brevity.