PCC has exponentially grown on the past few years
Brazil's PCC has become a multinational criminal enterprise

PCC has exponentially grown on the past few years

The First Command of the Capital (PCC) was born on October 31, 1993. The organization, which would later become Brazil’s largest criminal empire, was created inside a penitentiary in Taubaté, a city close to São Paulo, by eight inmates. Their goal was to denounce what they saw as “oppression” by the prison system.

They also wanted to avenge the prisoners killed during the Carandiru massacre, the biggest in Brazil’s prison system. Following a riot on October 2, 1992, 111 inmates were slaughtered over the span of half an hour by police agents at São Paulo’s Carandiru prison. The police have always claimed that it was a matter of self-defense, although the prisoners didn’t have firearms, and many bodies were found with bullet wounds in the back of their heads, in classic execution style.

As their symbol, the founders of the PCC chose the yin-yang, to represent the balance between evil and wisdom.

How Brazil was introduced to the PCC

Few Brazilians knew about the group’s existence until May 12, 2006, when the PCC staged a series of attacks against police forces. The conditions for the confrontation were created one week prior, when São Paulo’s penitentiary administration discovered PCC plans for rebellions in dozens of state prisons.

On May 11, the state issued an order to transfer 765 inmates – including the PCC’s alleged leader – to a maximum-security prison. Following this transfer, riots broke out in 74 different facilities, and over 100 people were taken as hostages. It demonstrated the organization’s undeniable powers of communication and mobilization.

On the following day, violent attacks were carried out outside of prisons, as 59 police officers were murdered in a total of 293 attacks. A new wave of attacks would come two months later. This time, the targets were no longer restricted to police stations. Bank branches and supermarkets were also attacked.

Panic spread, as did rumors of a curfew imposed by the PCC. Residents were too afraid to check for themselves if it was true or not. São Paulo, the city known for never sleeping, finally slept. Forty percent of universities closed their doors during the spree, and a third of buses never left their garages, after 90 of them had been torched. Even Congonhas airport in downtown São Paulo was closed owing to a bomb threat.

Brazil's PCC has become a multinational criminal enterprise

In 2006, São Paulo was at war. Photo: Irineu Jr./Flickr

The police response was crushing. In the following days, there were 505 confirmed deaths of civilians, almost ten times as many police losses. Death squads formed by policemen and paramilitary groups carried out hundreds of assassinations, with over 400 bodies found with gunshot wounds that were consistent with execution-style killings – although the state disputes this.

Now, the whole country knew about the PCC.

Exponential growth

Twenty-five years after its creation, the organization now has over 30,000 members spread across nearly every Brazilian state. According to some estimates, the PCC has an annual turnover of at least BRL 400 million (USD 106 million) and up to BRL 800 million. The lower figure is double of what the gang was believed to have earned in 2015. If the PCC were a corporation, it would be among the wealthiest 500 companies in the country.

Authorities have recently seized documents which shed light on the organization’s rapid expansion. In its home state, the organization has nearly doubled its number of members – from around 6,000 in 2012 to almost 11,000 today. In other states, membership jumped from just over 3,000 in 2014 to more than 20,000.

The documents also reveal how the group manages its finances. PCC members who are not in prison must pay a BRL 950 monthly membership fee, nicknamed a “cebola” (onion). Inmates must pay “union dues” ranging from BRL 100 to 600. If a prisoner is unable to pay, he goes into debt and must repay the organization once he is released from prison – usually by committing crimes. Members must also give a portion of the money raised in heists to the organization.

The group has yet to make the full transition to a mafia-like organization, with a series of legitimate businesses to operate as a front for illegal operations. Today, though, most of the group’s transactions remain in cash.

Can anyone stop the PCC?

Because of the nature of the group’s activities, it is very difficult to know the actual size and influence of the PCC. But it is safe to say that it is now the largest criminal organization in the country.

According to Guaracy Mingardi, a political scientist and member of the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety (FBSP), no other group can be compared to the São Paulo-born organization. “Not only has the PCC been growing more than other [rivals], but it is also more organized,” Mr. Mingardi told The Brazilian Report.

But the drug gang’s success is not necessarily attributed to the violence of its methods. According to anthropologist Karina Biondi, who authored an ethnographic study on the PCC, the group has become “an idea,” and is likely to grow at the same rate as the Brazilian prison population.

The inner workings of the PCC resemble that of a company, with several divisions. One, for instance, is trusted with helping the families of members who were killed in action. Another department is responsible for dealing with legal issues, a third manages the drug trafficking. Each area has its own officers, division of labor, and budget. They all answer to a main group, which dictates the strategy of the organization as a whole.


pcc prison crisis brazil


Why do people join the PCC?

For her book, Ms. Biondi interviewed many members of the criminal organization and she heard that one of the main reasons people join the PCC is because it has “a purpose.” The faction isn’t just involved in crime, it also supports its members’ families by offering “social work,” as explains Mr. Mingardi.

For example, the organization pays for bus fares so that families who live far from São Paulo can visit their loved ones in prison. These gestures, as believes the political scientist, is what led the organization to have such a widespread influence.

Also, penitentiaries are perfect recruiting grounds for the PCC. “Prisons,” Ms. Biondi says, “create unwanted alliances between criminals [that would not exist in other circumstances]. The worse the conditions in prisons are, the more reasons inmates have to unite.”

PCC’s structured organization and its unprecedented growth raise serious alarms. The documents found by the police suggest that the PCC has members in five South American countries (Colombia, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, and Guyana). Also, the Brazilian media has already linked the gang to Hezbollah and the FARC in Colombia.

Brazil's PCC has become a multinational criminal enterprise

Gang leaders during 2006 prison riot. Photo: EC

Mr. Mingardi says these rumors are “pure nonsense.” The PCC would be far more concerned about its inner structure, rather than with “institutional” partnerships. “My contacts with the police all say the same: [the PCC] sells drugs to the Middle East, but is not in contact with Hezbollah,” he explains. With regard to the FARC, the political scientist points out that cocaine comes to Brazil from Bolivia, not Colombia.

Is it possible to put a halt to the PCC’s growth? Is ending the organization altogether actually feasible?

For Ms. Biondi, one possible measure would be to “drastically reduce the number of arrests.” Another solution involves increasing the investigative powers of Brazil’s civil police. Mr. Mingardi says “there is no investigation at all” when it comes to drug dealing.

Most arrests are small drug busts, which may be helpful to inflate statistics but do nothing to affect the structure of organized crime. The Feds could be investigating the PCC’s money-laundering methods, but instead, in Mr. Mingardi’s opinion, agents are more worried about operations that could give them their 15 minutes of fame.

BY Diogo Rodriguez

Rodriguez is a social scientist and journalist based in São Paulo.