Thanks to a combination of great organizational capacity, control of prisons, high levels of loyalty among its members and dominance of key criminal economies, the PCC has become one of the most powerful criminal structures in South America.
But the question a panel of experts in crime and security sought to answer at an InSight Crime conference in Buenos Aires on March 5 was: how far can they go?
Born in the prisons of the Brazilian state of São Paulo in the 1990s, it is estimated that the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC) today has at least 30,000 members throughout the country.
"The PCC is unlike any other (criminal) organization in its structure, hierarchy, logistics within prisons and ability to regulate criminal markets," said Matthew Taylor, associate professor and Brazil expert at American University in Washington D.C.
The group has thrived within Brazil's criminal context, allowing it to recruit almost at will from overcrowded prisoners, offering its members a measure of protection from violence and a sense of belonging as well as providing them with services. This access to thousands of current and former inmates has been key to the group's expansion across much of Brazil, as well as in neighboring Paraguay.
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By 2016, the PCC had replicated its prison control model in six Brazilian states, according to Bruno Paes Manso, a journalist and researcher at the University of São Paulo. He told the conference that another great advantage of the PCC is to be an arbiter of violence.
In areas under their control, be it prisons or entire neighborhoods, "you cannot kill without the authorization of the group," explained Paes Manso.
Juan Alberto Martens Molas, a professor of criminology at Paraguay's National University of Pilar in Paraguay, also explained that institutional and security problems in Paraguay had opened the door to the PCC's expansion and consolidation there.
As he pointed out, Paraguay's illegal economy corresponds to about 39 percent of the country's legitimate GDP, especially through lucrative criminal economies such as smuggling, arms trafficking and drug trafficking. Coupled with a weak response from authorities and a soaring prison population, the country has become an ideal breeding ground for the PCC.
InSight Crime's co-director, Steven Dudley, described the PCC as "a very eclectic criminal group" before mentioning several points which has made Paraguay ideal for the PCC's expansion. Firstly, the country has a history of criminal groups accumulating power, acting as companies and even leading to entire political structures being based around criminal economies, especially the cultivation and production of marijuana or cigarette smuggling.
Secondly, there is real institutional weakness due to the involvement of politicians and authorities in criminal economies. These ties mean that elected officials have no interest in strengthening judicial systems, prisons, or the police, the very institutions needed to fight the PCC, instead leaving them intentionally weakened.
And thirdly, the state of Paraguay's prisons means that they are fertile ground for the PCC, whose recruitment is anchored by its presence in prisons. "Paraguay has turned to mass incarceration, with a prison population which leapt from around 3,000 in 2000 to around 13,000 in 2019," explained Dudley.
Another question raised at the debate is whether the PCC could now expand further, specifically into Argentina. Being a top cocaine consumer, Argentina would seem to be a prime target for the PCC.
Carolina Sampó, coordinator for the Center for Transnational Organized Crime (Centro de Estudios Sobre Crimen Organizado Transnacional — CeCOT) at the University of La Plata, Argentina, told the conference that the PCC is unlikely to see Argentina as its next frontier.
"Argentina has a very high rate of drug use but this does not mean that it is an interesting country for international criminal organizations because it is still a relatively small market," said Sampó.
She added that its criminal context is quite different to its neighbors since drug trafficking is dominated by clans focused on local distribution and not on international trafficking. There have been exceptions such as the Loza and Castedo clans, according to Sampó, who had international distribution routes but microtrafficking for domestic consumption remains the norm.
"There are several elements inhibiting the PCC from coming to Argentina: the country is not a drug producer, the state has more control over prisons than in other countries and this is reflected in the levels of violence on the streets."