The Latin American Drug Cartel You’ve Never Heard of

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Illustration by InSight Crime

Over the past 30 years, a Brazilian drug and arms-smuggling cartel operating largely behind bars has grown into the dominant transnational criminal organization (TCO) in Latin America, using an organizational model that may pose a potent new threat to authorities fighting organized crime in the hemisphere, according to InSight Crime.

Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) is the “world’s most powerful prison gang,” according to the report, which was co-authored by American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.

The group, founded in 1993 by a handful of Brazilian inmates as a protest against prison conditions, now comprises an estimated 30,000 members. It dominates criminal markets in six Brazilian states with a combined population of more than 76 million, with much of the growth occurring since 2015.

“The PCC is now the dominant TCO in the criminal markets of southeastern and western Brazil,” write authors Matthew Taylor, an associate professor at American University’s School of International Service, and Steven Dudley, co-director of InSight Crime, a think-tank and analysis group specializing in Latin America.

“It has control over the most important southbound trafficking routes; and it has privileged access to Brazil’s largest airports and ports.”

This rapid expansion has alarmed advocates and experts, who claim its “innovative” prison-based operations poses a special challenge to authorities trying to check its influence in the hemisphere and beyond.

“The innovative PCC model is increasingly being emulated by its rivals, suggesting that even in the unlikely event that the PCC itself were completely extinguished, a more resilient model of criminal organization has been established, posing a significant and ongoing threat to law enforcement efforts across South America,” the report said.

According to the authors, the PCC’s power comes from its ability to subsidize a wide network outside the prison system, including families of imprisoned members, while at the same time wreaking brutal punishment on its opponents.

“These tactics have lent it prestige, legitimacy, and popular support, especially in poor communities,” the authors wrote.

In its history and organizational structure, the group resembles the networks of Russian organized crime which flourished inside the Soviet prison “gulag” during the last century. So-called “Thieves in Law” directed huge black market operations across the country from behind bars, until the breakdown of the Soviet Union brought many of them into the open.

The PCC was born out of a 1992  riot in the Carandiru penitentiary in Sao Paolo, which left 111 prisoners dead.  It was established to fight what it described as the “oppressive” conditions inside the country’s penitentiary system that led to the massacre.

In 2001, the PCC led coordinated rebellions in 29 state prisons, causing 16 deaths and many injuries, solidifying the organization’s power over the state prison population and its inmates.

Because of the control of prison systems that the PCC effectively earned through the sheer number of members, the PCC has been able to regulate criminal markets in all of the Latin American states, which are all important entry points for contraband into Brazil and across other state lines, such as Paraguay, the report said.

Unlike other organized crime groups, there has been little evidence of corruption and collusion between high-ranking political elites and the PCC. To that end, any previously discovered collusion between the PCC and government officials appears to be only limited to grassroots level of prison officials and police officers, experts say.

Drugs and Firearms

As inmates in Latin America cycle in and out of the prison systems, the PCC relies on those who are not behind bars to feed their criminal economy by “paying dues, carrying out personal favors, participating in new criminal activities, and administering discipline,” the authors write.

In other words, PCC members who are not behind bars are used to actively continue the group’s organized crime demands while also striving for a profit.

To money to fund their behavior and maintain control, the PCC operates as a major drug trafficking network. In fact, Brazil is the second largest consumer market of cocaine in the world, and the relatively low prevalence of cocaine use has suggested to the PCC that there is room for consumption to grow significantly — inspiring their money-making operations, according to the report.

Moreover, the PCC has exploited Brazil’s weak enforcement of firearms regulations.

Brazil’s civilian firearm possession is low — particularly in comparison to large Western countries like the U.S.— but one estimate suggests that legal firearms making up only 46.1 percent of the 17.5 million firearms in Brazilians’ possession.

Increasingly, the PCC is moving into other illicit markets like illegal gambling, ATM thefts, and stolen cargo, further extending its reach.

Recent crackdowns affecting PCC’s senior leadership have led some experts to suggest that the organization will break down into smaller — “potentially less cohesive” — criminal organizations, but others suggest its amorphous structure makes it impervious to these attempts.

The PCC model seems likely to hold its place in revenue building and membership capacity, says the report.

Experts also suggest that the future of the leaders to come out of the PCC won’t be behind bars; instead, they will be a younger generation working from outside the prison system. Because of this, another likely scenario is that this leadership would continue northern trafficking routes as they push for more profits, and operate outside of prison cells.

InSight Crime is a foundation dedicated to the study of the organized threat to national and citizen security in Latin America and the Caribbean.

American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies professors, researchers, and students helped prepare the manuscript for publishing, as well as oversaw research and project administration.

The full report can be accessed here. 

This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano.

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