The northern state of Ceará in Brazil has become a battlefield after government plans to clamp down on gang-controlled prisons were met with an unlikely alliance of criminal groups, showing their collective muscle through dozens of acts of violence. In the very first week of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency, this may set a troubling precedent for how Brazil’s gangs will respond to forceful attempts to bring them to heel.
The violence began after Ceará's new top prison official, Luis Mauro Albuquerque, promised to stop dividing prison populations based on gang allegiances and to conduct more thorough searches, especially to crack down on cellphone use. These measures, if implemented, would make it more difficult for jailed gang leaders to maintain control of outside operations.
Their response was rapid. A truce was called between Brazil’s two leading criminal groups, First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) and Red Command (Comando Vermelho), as well as their local rivals, Guardians of the State (Guardiões do Estado - GDE) and Family of the North (Família do Norte – FDN), both of which have had ties to the PCC and CV.
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Intercepted text messages sent between members of the GDE spoke of a temporary truce between the gangs, saying “we are calling this truce because we must...it is the intention of the state (that we should kill each other). We will not satisfy the will of the state. We will receive our enemies with the dignity of bandits and expect the same feedback from them,” El País reported.
The Justice and Public Security Minister, Sergio Moro, has ordered up to 400 extra police troops to Ceará to help control the violence. At least 191 people have been arrested on charges of rioting, civil disobedience and resisting authority.
So far, this has not seemed to stem the violence. By January 9, over 180 instances of violence had been reported in various municipalities.
While no deaths have been directly attributed to these acts so far, the gang members have struck at infrastructure: burning buses and police vehicles as well as attacking police stations, businesses, and banks. A bridge near the state capital, Fortaleza, was even damaged with explosives.
However, Moro’s decision seems to at least be playing well politically since two other states, Pará and Espírito Santo, have also asked for federal troops to be sent there to quell criminality.
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The speed and spread of the violence across Ceará shows just how much power Brazil’s gang leaders continue to wield behind bars. PCC and Red Command began as prison gangs before going on to national and international prominence.
The alliance between these gangs is a particular cause for worry. While they have regularly clashed in turf wars since 2016, PCC and Red Command had enjoyed an alliance for almost two decades. Now the gangs could once again be brought together to take on government forces.
Similar events have been seen in the region, such as in El Salvador. Gangs there progressively turned from fighting each other, uniting to face violent government repression.
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While the Ceará riots began in response to a local policy, this situation is now seen as a real test of Bolsonaro’s ability to “get tough.” His rhetoric on the campaign trail and since taking office has been heavy on bluster and slim on details, promising to give police a license to kill criminals or to make it easier for Brazilians to own a gun. He has packed his cabinet with military figures.
His justice minister, Sergio Moro, is seen as more pragmatic and enjoys a solid reputation for his anti-corruption successes in recent years.
However, such a coordinated backlash by the country’s most dangerous gangs in the first week of Bolsonaro's presidency may signify troubled times ahead for him. And for Brazil.