HomeNewsAnalysisStudy Shows Prison Gangs Rule Much More than Penitentiaries

Study Shows Prison Gangs Rule Much More than Penitentiaries


Prison gangs in Central America and Brazil have evolved from small predatory groups to sophisticated criminal organizations with an ability to create mayhem that extends far beyond penitentiary walls or current prevention strategies, according to this study from the Brookings Institution.

Contemporary prison gangs present new and confounding challenges for states. They have gained the capacity to organize street level crime, radically alter patterns of criminal violence, and, in the extreme, hold gov­ernments hostage to debilitating, orchestrated violence and disruption.

*This article was originally published in longer form by Brookings Institution, and is reposted with permission. See the original article here. This article does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime.   

Unlike traditional armed groups though, prison gangs cannot be directly neutralized through repressive force, since most of their leadership is al­ready incarcerated. Indeed, common hardline state responses like aggres­sive policing, anti gang sweeps, and enhanced sentencing can inadvertently swell prison gangs' ranks and strengthen their ability to coordinate activity on the street.

Breaking up prison gang leadership has proved particularly counterproductive, often facilitating prison gangs' propagation throughout state and national level prison systems. Alternative approaches like gang truces that exploit prison gangs' capacity to organize and pacify criminal markets can be very effective at reducing violence. However, they are politically dicey and hence unstable, and ultimately leave the state partially dependent on prison gangs for the provision of order, both within and beyond the prison walls.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. Indeed, there are three distinct problems for policy makers to grapple with. First, anti-gang crackdowns, which often raise incarceration rates, lengthen sentences, and worsen pris­on conditions, can actually help prison gangs establish authority outside prison, organize criminal markets, and orchestrate mass violence and pro­test. In many cases, prison gangs come to play a major role in providing order in peripheral communities, imposing codes of conduct that signifi­cantly reduce property crime and violence among residents.

Second, while there is evidence that these mass incarceration policies helped prison gangs establish their authority, both within prison and on the street, it is not clear that simply reducing incarceration rates or improving prison conditions would neutralize that authority. The social orders that prison gangs have built in Central America, Brazil, and even parts of the United States rest on real institutions of varying degrees of formality: from shared language and symbols to written constitutions, and even corporate and state like administrative structures. Like all institutions, these are likely to be "sticky," i.e. resilient to turnover in members and leaders, and adaptable to changing local conditions.

Finally, it is not clear that rolling back, undermining, or neutralizing gang authority -- even if it were possible -- would produce positive outcomes. States were not good at providing order in prisons or peripheral areas be­fore sophisticated prison gangs arose, and there is little reason to believe that they can entirely supplant gang authority in the short or even medium term. Smashing the authority of prison gangs could lead to outbreaks of brutal infighting or a chaotic scramble for power.

As such, this paper recommends a containment approach that strikes a balance between hardline repression and accommodation. Policymakers should aim to: increasingly acknowledge gang presence and power, rather than deny or obfuscate it; set rules of the game that take advantage of gang leaders' ability to pacify criminal markets while demarcating realms where the state can slowly supplant gangs; use repression more strategically to enforce these rules, creating incentives for gang leaders to avoid violence and anti social behavior; and put greater state, civil society, and interna­tional resources into recuperating state authority in non criminal areas where gangs currently hold sway.

Much More than Prison Gangs

The very term "prison gangs" is inadequate. Groups like California's Mexican Mafia, Central America's maras, and the facções criminais (criminal factions) of Brazil may have arisen in a context of small, predatory inmate groups, but they have all expanded into large or­ganizations operating in multiple prisons, where they order the day to day life of prisoners under their "jurisdiction."

Moreover, all of these groups wield significant power outside prison, where, at a minimum, they organize and tax street level criminal activity. All of these groups have affected a re­structuring of local criminal markets, generally bringing fragmented and autonomous local gangs and outfits under a centralized authority. A more ac­curate terms would be "prison based criminal organizations." Regardless of what we call them, however, it is critical to understand that contemporary, sophisticated prison gangs use the prison system as a key resource for organized criminal, and increasingly political, activity.

Incarceration can help criminal groups consolidate power by  eliminating or subjugating rivals and taking control of key aspects of prison life. One way that policy has inadvertently strengthen prison gangs is through the common practice of segregating inmates by gang, providing gangs with localized hegemony. 

The spread of a prison gang to multiple prisons within a penitentiary system, or propagation, most commonly happens through transfers, but it can also occur through prisoner release and re-im­prisonment, as well as "mergers" and "franchising" involving initially un­affiliated groups.

Propagation across state and national lines is rarer, but clearly occurred in the case of the maras, whose leaders were deported in the 1990s to El Salvador and Honduras from California, where they had lived under the Mexican Mafia's prison-based rule.

It is prison gangs' ability to proj­ect power beyond the prison walls that transforms them into a first-order public-security concern. The ability to project power, is funda­mentally linked to state policy: prison gangs wield power over people on the street who expect to be incarcerated, and peoples' expectations about future incarceration?especially people with links to gangs?are largely a function of policing and sentencing policies.

Empirical evidence that mass incarceration policies can promote pris­on-gang projection comes from three leading cases of prison-gang growth and projection in the Western Hemisphere -- California, El Salvador, and São Paulo -- which all followed strikingly similar trajectories (See graphic below).


In all three cases: incarcer­ation rates were rising, prison conditions were worsening, crackdowns were poorly targeted, and gangs had already consolidated power within prison.

In California, the 1988 STEP (Street Terrorism Enforcement and Pro­tection) Act criminalized gang membership and enhanced sentences for gang-related crimes, vastly increasing police discretion and reinforcing an already strong rise in the incarceration rate.

El Salvador's Mano Dura (Iron Fist) and Super Mano Dura policies were harsh an­ti-gang initiatives that criminalized gang membership and granted police wide discretion in detaining suspected members. These laws drove incar­ceration rates sharply upward, but largely failed to distinguish street-gang members from non-members (pdf).  Scholars agree that this period led to a significant increase in the organization and hierarchy of the MS-13 and M-18 gangs. Their power on the street, however, only became fully clear in 2010, when imprisoned leaders of the main groups joined forces to induce -- via threats of mass violence against city buses by street-level affiliates -- a transportation strike that shut down the capital for three days, demanding improved prison conditions and the veto of an anti-gang law.

SEE MORE: Indepth Coverage of Prisons

Finally, in São Paulo, the generally hardline policies of a sequence of gov­ernors led to a massive expansion of the carceral system. This process in­tensified in the wake of the 2001 "mega-rebellion," in which 21 prisons, all under the control of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC) criminal organization, rebelled simultaneously. While this event clearly signaled the extent to which the PCC had consolidated its control and propagated throughout the São Paulo state prison system, few observers realized that the organization had been building up power in the streets.

Then, in May 2006, the PCC launched a synchronized wave of attacks. First, simultaneous riots broke out in some 90 prisons. Then, after many police had been deployed to prison sites, street-level collaborators launched hundreds of attacks on civilian, police, and urban infrastructure targets. The capital was brought to a standstill for days, until authorities met with PCC leaders and made key concessions, at which point the attacks abruptly stopped.

The Dangers of Prison Gang Projection

If prison gangs used projection of power only to tax street gangs, then in­creased incarceration might merely raise prison gangs' relative criminal income. However, contemporary prison gangs use projection of power in ways that are problematic for states, even if they sometimes reducecrime rates.

In the 1980s, Rio de Janeiro's Red Command (Comando Vermelho) used a code of mutu­al-aid among its members to systematically oust or subdue incumbent drug retailers from a majority of the city's favelas, and then hold that terri­tory despite decades of extreme police repression (pdf). Comparing four Bra­zilian cities in 2008, I found Rio's local monopolies on drug retailing unique, and plausibly due to the Red Command's prison-based governance structure.

Like the Red Command, California's Mexican Mafia (also known as the Eme) and São Paulo's PCC have both used their coercive power to organize street-level drug markets. Yet whereas the Eme's power is limited to areas dominated by southern Californian Lati­no gangs, the PCC operates throughout the entire urban periphery of São Paulo as wholesaler, tax collector, and arbiter of disputes among myriad small-scale retailers, according to a former São Paulo prosecutor. It has imposed a violence-limiting "lei do crime" (criminal code of conduct) through an astonishing system of trials, via cell-phone conferencing, before a jury of jailed PCC elders.

In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the maras organized extortion rackets, perhaps because retail drug markets were quite small in these countries. Leaders introduced hierarchies, stricter and savvier codes of behavior -- such as prohibiting gang tattoos -- and a system of prison-coordi­nated and -taxed extortion of businesses and public transportation known as la renta (the rent).

SEE MORE: Coverage of El Salvador's Gang Truce

Prison-gang authority can extend to entire peripheral regions and pop­ulations, providing order, justice, and other public goods, and effective­ly supplanting state authority. In Rio de Janeiro, an entire generation of favela residents has been born and raised under the armed dominion of prison-coordinated drug syndicates, while the state's presence was large­ly limited to intermittent, corrupt, and highly lethal police invasions. As a founding Red Command member explained to author Carlos Amorim: "We catechize the favela residents and show them that the government cannot help them or see their side of things. So we give food, medicine, clothes, textbooks.... We pay for doctors, funerals... We even resolve domestic disputes; there can't be trouble or else the police will enter."

Southern California's Eme has made minor efforts to influence larger pe­ripheral populations, coordinating offensives by affiliated Sureño street gangs against black residents in Los Angeles and Norteños governed by the Eme rival La Nuestra Familia in central California. Maras, by contrast, play a dominant role in neighborhoods throughout El Salvador, as well as Guatemala and Honduras.

The PCC has relentlessly expanded its presence throughout São Paulo's ur­ban periphery since 2000, and its dispute-resolution and order-provision services now extend to a broad population poorly served by state institu­tions. As one detective noted: "The PCC is now judging small-claims cases, even domestic disputes. It's clogging up our wiretaps, which capture fewer and fewer" serious crimes.

Protest and Violence as Bargaining Chips

Protest and orchestrated violence are the gang tactics most obviously debilitating to states, and can work both inside and outside prison. The Red Command, whose founding members watched while the leftist militants they were housed with successfully pro­tested their way to amnesty, regularly organized hunger strikes and pe­titions, often coercing the larger inmate population into adherence. The Red Command has also instigated prison riots, often in multiple prisons simultane­ously, as a means of pressuring or punishing officials. On the outside, the Red Command has frequently induced its foot soldiers in favelas to carry out city-wide shutdowns of businesses, burn buses, and attack public buildings and po­lice stations, usually to pressure officials to slacken carceral policies.

São Paulo's PCC has extended and perfected these tactics. The 2006 PCC attacks, more than just a destructive affront to state authority, were an ef­fective political cudgel: they not only forced concessions in carceral policy, but helped defeat PCC antagonist Gerardo Alckmin -- then-governor of São Paulo and architect of its mass incarceration policies -- in his 2006 bid to unseat President Lula da Silva. When I asked what the PCC gained from their attacks, São Paulo's former District Attorney for Organized Crime told me: "Power, in the political arena. Now they must always be taken into consideration; everyone is afraid."

SEE MORE: Coverage of First Capital Command

But the threat of violence is only one side of the coin. The PCC's imposition of its "criminal code of conduct" on the underworld -- indeed, on much of the urban periphery -- is widely thought to have contributed to an outsized drop in homicide in São Paulo. Between 1999 and 2007, homicide rates fell from 44 to 15 per 100,000, a 66 percent reduction that was the largest of any Brazilian state and well above the nationwide variation of -3.7 percent. The transformation is epochal: São Paulo city is now the least violent state capital in Brazil.

Likewise, El Salvador's maras followed their 2010 show of force with a March 2012 prison-brokered truce that produced a stunning 60 percent drop in the national homicide rate, testifying to imprisoned leaders' con­trol over street-level behavior. (See graphic below)

Though the government initially denied any role in the truce, top mara leaders were returned from isola­tion to low-security prisons and allowed cell phones, among other con­cessions.  Once the homicide drop became undeniable, the government began to take credit, inviting security ministers from Guatemala and Hon­duras to discuss exporting the Salvadoran experiment. Yet the truce al­ways elicited vocal opposition from multiple sectors, often motivated by the fear that negotiating with the maras would further empower them.


Between 2013 and 2014, the truce slowly unraveled. One key reason was the removal from government, by Supreme Court decree, of the truce's formulator in 2013. But more systemic factors also played a role, in particular the inability of both the gangs and the government to deepen the truce with further mutual concessions. For gang-leaders, ordering the rank and file to stop killing was relatively low-cost, but stopping extortion (street-members' primary source of revenue) would have stretched leaders' authority to the breaking point.

Similarly, officials could offer imprisoned leaders low-security facilities, family visits, and other benefits through im­mediate executive actions, but job programs to replace extortion income and changes in policing practices would have required legislative approval, in a context of sharp public disapproval of such concessions. During this "unraveling" period, maras announced several attempts to strike new truc­es, warning of the potential violence if no truce were struck.

Accordingly, when El Salvador's new president definitively ruled out the truce in 2015, transferring many mara leaders to solitary confinement where they could no longer communicate with the rank and file, violence skyrocketed. Nonetheless, the maras have continued to make overtures of new truces, which have been ephemeral, but may have contributed to short-term re­ductions in homicides. Conversely, as noted above, in 2015 they instigated another transportation strike through orchestrated bus-burnings.

In sum, prison gangs' capacity to both orchestrate mass violence and atten­uate homicide and other violent crimes gives them enormous leverage over state officials.

Policy Implications

Governments would be better served by seeking a middle way between brute force anti-gang repression and purely accommodative approaches -- in short, a containment strategy. Such an approach would frankly acknowledge gang leaders' power on the streets and hence their importance as interlocutors, what Nobel laureate Thomas C. Schelling -- suggesting ways to limit the harms from organized crime -- called "'diplomatic recognition' of the enemy." At the same time, state policy could transparently aim to confine prison-gang authority to purely criminal activity, while slowly supplanting gangs' power within peripheral communities. 

This would likely require both economic and social development interventions -- rebuilding schools, community health centers, and so on -- as well as shifting policing practice away from pure repression toward prevention and community involvement. Repressive force can still play a key role, but states should aim to deploy it more strategically, punishing gangs for overstepping behavioral and territorial limits, and creating incentives for gang leaders to put their authority to good uses.

Gangs in turn are less likely to actively resist state incursion into "their" territory if the state has made clear it is not trying to exterminate them, but rather to provide public goods for largely law-abid­ing communities. The state is more likely to succeed through "salami tactics" -- slowly pushing gangs into less destructive, but less lucrative activities, while slowly building up its own legit­imacy in neglected communities -- than by attempting to incarcerate or kill its way out of the problem through sheer repressive force.

To supporters of hardline crackdowns, these policy suggestions will surely appear naïve, unethical, or both, given that negoti­ating with criminals is taboo. This taboo was briefly broken in El Salvador, and has now been restored and codified into law; elsewhere, governments simply deny that the delicate dance of concessions and tacit agreements constitutes negotiation. Yet the reality is that governments are locked in a strategic interaction with prison-based criminal organizations with the power to alter patterns of crime and violence at a national scale. Eliminat­ing prison-gangs is not a short-run option. Learning to manage them is the best path forward.

*This article was originally published in longer form by Brookings Institution, and is reposted with permission. See the original article here. This article does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. Benjamin Lessing is an assistant professor of political science and co-founder of the Program on Political Violence at the University of Chicago.

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