More than 30 lawyers in Brazil have been arrested for their alleged links to one of the country's most powerful prison gangs, raising difficult questions about the role attorneys can play in facilitating criminal activities.
Police in São Paulo arrested 33 suspects -- including 31 lawyers -- on November 22 as part of an operation aimed at dismantling a faction of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando Capital - PCC) known as "R," according to an official press release.
A police investigation identified 55 suspected members of the gang faction, including 40 attorneys. Most of the suspects had allegedly operated outside of prison, but the police stated that 14 individuals identified as leaders of the group operated from behind bars.
Some of the lawyers were accused of laundering money for the gang and, according to O Globo, creating a "death list" with the names of prison guards and their family members. Some of the attorneys also allegedly acted as intermediaries between the gang's imprisoned leadership and members outside of prison.
The vice president of the State Human Rights Defense Council (Conselho Estadual de Direitos Humanos - CONDEPE), identified by media reports as Luiz Carlos dos Santos, was among those arrested. Santos allegedly received around $38,700 in exchange for making false complaints to human rights bodies on the gang's behalf.
Santos had worked with the families of several youths killed in an October massacre allegedly carried out with the participation of São Paulo's Metropolitan Civil Guard (Guarda Civil Metropolitana) in retaliation for the earlier slaying of another member of the force. It is not clear whether the alleged false complaints Santos made were related to this case.
Marcos Fuchs, the vice president of the non-governmental organization Conectas Direitos Humanos, told Folha de São Paulo that Santos' arrest represented a "threat" to the legal sector.
"It is not healthy for our cause. It is not healthy for those who defend human rights, for all entities and for all organizations," he said.
"CONDEPE is a very serious organization that has this role, this condemnation in the defense of human rights, to receive complaints, to investigate complaints, to make inspections and to make visits in the prison system as one of its prerogatives," Fuchs continued. "We need to be very cautious."
InSight Crime Analysis
The implication by Fuchs that the arrests may have been motivated by the legitimate work of the attorneys raises serious concerns about possible government interference with citizens' right to legal representation and due process of law. On the other hand, however, the arrests themselves are a reminder that prison gangs sometimes abuse those rights by using lawyers to help further their criminal activities.
The use of attorneys as intermediaries to carry messages from imprisoned gang leaders to members on the outside was reported at least as far back as 2010, in an article published by Época magazine that described lawyers working as the PCC's "executive arm." Subsequent reports have suggested that the PCC is recruiting sharp young legal minds with the intention of employing them to assist in the gang's activities.
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This phenomenon is not unique to Brazil. In El Salvador, for instance, lawyers have been accused of managing imprisoned gang leaders' business affairs as well as sending messages to members on the street. In fact, Salvadoran authorities recently issued a new round of arrest warrants for attorneys suspected of engaging in such activities.