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How Brazil’s Borders Became More Diverse, Dangerous

BRAZIL / 8 MAR 2021 BY INSIGHT CRIME EN

Criminal dynamics in Brazil, particularly its drug trafficking routes, have been shaken up in recent years by the rapid expansion of the PCC.

The conclusion comes on the heels of a two-year investigation by InSight Crime, which profiled the criminal economies of four Brazilian border states, Mato Grosso do Sul, Paraná, Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina, as part of a broader regional investigation into transborder crime.

The investigation culminated in with an event (see below) that showcased its main findings, as well as a corruption case study on the prolific money laundering activities of Dario Messer, a Brazilian-Paraguayan national, who helped political elites, businessmen and contraband traders hide their illicit proceeds for years before his 2019 capture.  

Here are the main findings:

The PCC Increasingly Dominates Borders

Brazil's premier criminal organization, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Capital Command – PCC), has expanded exponentially both inside Brazil and abroad in Paraguay in the last two years. This rising influence is based on a number of critical factors, including its ability to recruit members inside Brazil’s overpopulated prison system, the expansion of the European cocaine market, and the PCC’s horizontal business model, which allows members to operate independently as long as they respect overarching guidelines and pay a cut of their earnings to the gang and its leaders.

This continued success has become a model for other criminal groups in the country, such as the Family of the North (Familia do Norte – FDN), which has seen similar success at establishing control of prisons and drug trafficking routes in northern Brazil. The FDN's expansion, however, has been halted somewhat by infighting.  

SEE ALSO: The Rise of the PCC: Expansion in Brazil and Beyond

The PCC’s expansion into Brazil’s border states has allowed it to gain control over a large percentage of marijuana and cocaine coming into the country, produced in Paraguay and Bolivia respectively.

However, this expansion has not been uncontested, and the PCC does not yet have the force and control that it has in its base of São Paulo. It has led to an escalation in violence along the border and inside Paraguay, both inside and outside prisons.

Paraguay-Brazil Corridor is Preeminent

Drug trafficking through the Paraguay-Brazil corridor has become the crucial supply line of cocaine to Brazilian ports and onto destinations across Europe. Clashes for control of these routes have ramped up, especially after the assassination of the so-called "King of the Border," Jorge Rafaat, in 2016, a powerful drug trafficker along the Paraguayan border.

While the PCC is, in terms of strength and influence, the most important player in the Brazil-Paraguay drug trafficking chain, it does not have hegemony. The PCC and Paraguayan rivals, such as the Pavão clan, have sought to extend their control northwards towards the Bolivian border.

Even in Brazil, the PCC’s control varies from state to state. In Mato Grosso do Sul, whose border with Paraguay is the most important transit point for cocaine and marijuana in the region, the PCC is attempting to build hegemony and to push out its rivals from the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV) and others. This situation has led to Mato Grosso do Sul’s homicide rate to far outstrip the national average. 

The PCC's control may even stronger in Paraná, where the CV has a less pronounced presence and where other, localized groups are more focused on contraband or are not large enough to pose a real threat.

Criminal Economies Have Diversified

Over this two-year investigation, InSight Crime focused on eight major criminal economies: cocaine, cannabis, opiates, human trafficking, human smuggling, arms trafficking, environmental crime and illegal mining, across four states.

And beyond drug trafficking, the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay is a regional epicenter for contraband, arms trafficking and human trafficking.

SEE ALSO: GameChangers 2020: How Black Markets Became the New Normal

Contraband remains a colossal earner for criminal groups, especially in Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul, where everything from cigarettes to electronics are smuggled.

Sex trafficking is also becoming an increasing problem along the Brazilian border as women and girls are brought across from Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina, although the involvement of larger criminal groups in this trade is uncertain.

In Santa Catarina, the Primeiro Grupo Catarinense (PGC), a strong local criminal group that has managed to stave off the PCC’s advance, has the membership to control much of the cocaine, marijuana, weapons and illegally sourced minerals flowing through the state.

A Paraguayan Safe Haven?

In 2018, when Brazilian authorities tried to arrest the prolific money launderer Dario Messer, they had to chase him to Paraguay. That was because Messer had long before established businesses and gotten citizenship in the neighboring nation. To be sure, Messer was one of many "Brasiguayos," a term used to describe those who've gained dual citizenship, some of whom are fugitives from Brazilian justice.

Messer's most recent problems had begun with Operation “Lava Jato” (Car Wash), a vast Brazilian corruption investigation. During the investigation, prosecutors uncovered how Messer (and many others) had helped launder corrupt and illicit proceeds of around $1.6 billion through a complex network involving hundreds of offshore and local accounts, businesses and properties. This sum included more than $100 million he'd laundered for Sergio Cabral while he was governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro.

In 2019, months after Messer had fled, Paraguay alerted Brazil that they were tracking Messer through the country. Aside from having Paraguayan citizenship, Messer maintained very close ties to Horacio Cartes, the country’s former president and allegedly its top contraband trader, and had turned to him for help in avoiding extradition to Brazil. Their plan did not work: Messer was captured in São Paulo.


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