Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, & Public Security

By Enrique Desmond Arias; (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); 304 pages; $21.00. Amazon.com

Reviewed by Hai H. Do

In Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro, Enrique Arias sets out to explore two related questions: why is there so much violence in Rio and what can be done to improve the situation?  In the favelas (shantytowns) surrounding Rio, Arias seeks to answer these questions by showing how the ongoing impacts of crime and violence are closely connected to the ways in which criminal gangs, state officials, and civic actors interact with each other in pursuit of shared goals.  Among these goals are the delivery of services to neighborhood residents and the pursuit of political support and legitimacy among both politicians and drug traffickers throughout the favelas.  The network structures utilized to achieve these broader goals enhance the ability of criminal actors to engage in ongoing illegal activities with minimal external opposition.  These networks have transformed state power at the local level in such a way that many government policies actually reinforce criminal activities.

Drugs and Democracy provides a conceptual framework for discussing problems of violence in developing societies.  In Chapter 1, Arias traces the political history of Rio’s favelas.  Chapter 2 then details the book’s theoretical contributions, examining the place of criminals in a changing society and the ways in which they interact with other political actors. It also analyzes possible ways to control the violence.  Chapters 3, 4, and 5 examine the main political organizations of the three favelas in which Arias conducted his research (Tubarao, Santa Ana, and Vigario Geral) to explain how criminal networking creates the conditions for organizing violence and disrupts democratic governance.  In Chapter 6, Arias provides a comparative analysis of other illegal networks in Latin America.  He concludes that an alternative form of networked organization between local state and civic actors dedicated to the reduction of violence in the favelas would help mitigate crime over the medium term.  To this end, the author calls for more micro-level research into the operations of criminal organizations and their impacts on state institutions and social groups to advance the search for solutions to social violence in the developing world.


Violent Non-State Actors Database


Belize Human Smuggling Ring

Rogue Law Enforcement DTO


Fernandinho Beira Mar Gang-Red Command

First Command of the Capital

Guaruja Trafficking Ring

IJL Trafficking Network

Jose Maria Figueiro Gomes Gang

Pedro Goncalves da Silva Gang



Bourne Organization


Curacao DTO

G-Unit Gang

Jamaatal Muslimeen

San Fernando Sex Trafficking Ring

Dominican Republic

Dominicans Don’t Play

DRPR Airport Group 1

DRPR Airport Group 2


El Salvador



Los Perrones

Salvadoran Trafficking Network led by Nelson Castrillon Ospina

Salvadoran Trafficking Network led by Rómulo Antonio Portillo Colato

The Texis Cartel

External Influences

Albanian DT Group

America Group (Serbia-Montenegro)

Al-Qa‘ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); aka the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)

Berane-Coastal Gang

Bulgarian-Nigerian DTO

La Camorra (Operations and Ties to Latin America)

Sicilian Cosa Nostra (Operations in Latin America)

Cuban-American Mafia

ETA Network in Venezuela

Hell’s Angels




Mogilevich Group

Mun Korean DT Group

‘Ndrangheta (Operations in Latin America)


Red Dragon Mafia

Darko Saric Group

Solntsevskaya Bratva (Solntsevo Brotherhood)

Sreten Jocic Group

Tambovskaya (AKA: Tambov Gang, AKA: Tambovskaya-Malyshevskaya)

Tatar Group-Unnamed Balkan DTO

Unnamed Korean Mafia Group

Unnamed Latvian/CIS Organization

Unnamed Russian Caucasus Organization

Unnamed Russian DTO in Cancun

Unnamed Russian Human Trafficking Organization

West End Gang


Byron Berganza

El Tacquero

Former Kaibiles

Latin Kings

Los Lorenzana

Los Caradura

Los Leones

Luciano Cartel

Los Mendozas

Paredes Group

Petén-Coban Cartel

San Marcos DTO

The Sarceno Family

Three Franciscos (AKA the Francisco Smuggling Organization)


Agricola Gang

Buxton-Agricola Gang

Phantom Squad

Rodrigues Cocaine Trafficking Group

Shaheed “Roger” Khan Trafficking Network

Trafficking through Cheddi Jagan International Airport


Los Cachiros

Catacamas Drug Cartel

Juticalpa Drug Cartel

Los Olanchanos

Los Tercerenos


Bling Bling Gang

Klansman Gang

One Order Gang

Shower Posse

Stone Crusher Gang


Arellano Felix Organization AFO aka Tijuana Cartel

Artistic Assassins

Barrio Azteca

Gulf Cartel

Independent Acapulco Cartel

Juarez DTO (Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization)

La Familia-Knights Templar

La Linea and Los Linces

La Resistencia

Los Gueros

Los Mexicles

Los Negros

Los Pelones

Los Zetas

Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion

Sinaloa Organization aka Sinaloa Federation

South Pacific Cartel

The Hand with Eyes

Zhenli YeGon Group


American Airlines Smuggling Ring


Figueroa Agosto Network

Reñazcos Family

“Roloand” and “Topo” Organization

USPS Drug Trafficking Group


Adnan G. el-Shukrijumah

Air Holland Money Laundering Ring

Ayoko Gangs

Lobato Gang

Port of Santos Gang


Trade Minister Laundering Ring


Cartel del Sol (AKA: Los Soles)

Los Catalanes

Los Guajiros

Los Indios

Los Paz

“The Organization”

Walid Makled Organization


1. Improve Prison Conditions

Though problems like poverty and underdevelopment are often considered to be the root causes of crime, the formation of gangs after criminals have been arrested can be curbed with the improvement of living conditions inside detention facilities.  Currently, prisoners justify their rioting, brutality against guards, and general violence as retaliation against, and protection from, states that violate their basic rights.  Whether from a lack of prisons or stringent arrest policies, overcrowding plagues the prison systems of the United States, Mexico, and Central and South America.  Prisoners from the latter three regions complain they are denied basic necessities like blankets and soap, and international human rights organizations validate their claims.  If authorities address inadequate living conditions, prison gangs will be denied the foundations of their moral claims, and possibly, the subsequent support from sympathetic and often impoverished populations outside the prisons (i.e. in Central and South America).

2. Inmate Labor for Underdeveloped Neighborhoods

If infrastructure deficiencies and underdevelopment are contributing to poverty-based crime in place like Central and South America, then development projects aimed specifically at these higher-risk neighborhoods may help prevent young people from joining gangs out of economic desperation.  Additional manual labor programs for prisoners would reduce the costs of development and contribute to long-term solutions to the gang problem.  By partnering with non-government, non-profit, or charitable development organizations, law enforcement officials could bring economic stability to the impoverished populations that contribute to and often support the illegal operations of gang members.  Using inmate labor would also remove prisoners from the overcrowded conditions of their cells.

Risks, of course, exist.  The chances of prisoner escape during projects increase, so programs would have to be accompanied by an increase in the number of prison guards.  Communication between prisoners and non-inmate gang members may also be facilitated by the travel.  Cell phones inside prisons, however, already allow inmates to communicate with their colleagues; adding “community service” to prisoners’ daily activities may serve more as a distraction than as an added benefit for them.

3. Separate Housing Facilities Based on the Nature of the Crime

Prisoners should be housed in separate facilities based on the crime committed.  For example, inmates convicted of less serious crimes (i.e. vandalism and petty theft) would be placed in one detention block, while those guilty of serious crimes (i.e. murder and drug trafficking) would be placed in separate blocks.  This policy goes beyond isolating gang leaders and members from the general prison population, although the intended aims are the same: the prevention of gang “contamination” of unaffiliated prisoners.  The majority of individuals are incarcerated for a variety of petty crimes and often have little interest in gang culture.  But when these inmates are mixed with prisoners from other criminal professions, there is a high probability they will encounter individuals who proselytize the economic and personal merits of gang membership.  By recruiting inmates with diverse backgrounds, prison gangs gain new contacts to diversify their criminal networks (acquiring the skills of counterfeiters, marijuana growers, etc.), making them harder to disrupt and dismantle.  By isolating gang members from regular prison populations, and further separating prisoners according to the nature of the crime committed, the pool of criminal knowledge available to the prison gangs will be restricted and gang membership will decrease.

4. Increase Funding for Prison Guards

Most prison officers in the United States and Latin America are paid wages lower than other professions, tempting them facilitate the activities of prison gangs to supplement their incomes.  An increase in funding for prison personnel will not only provide higher salaries to stave off corruption, but also lead to more guards per prisoner strengthening state authority and the ability monitor illicit gang activity.  However, the opportunity costs may include less funding for food, training, and rehabilitation programs, etc.  In times of economic stress, intelligent retrenchment strategies (i.e. targeted cuts) from the various prison systems in the United States and Latin America can locate funding for guards to offset the opportunity costs in a satisfactory manner.

5. Build More Supermax Prison Facilities

To successfully alter the effectiveness of prison gangs, there is a strong need to build more exclusive maximum security prison facilities.  There are numerous maximum security prisons throughout the United States and other nations, but the majority rely only on a designated area in which the most dangerous inmates are housed.  The ADX supermax prison facility in Florence, Colorado, is entirely designated for the most dangerous offenders and has largely been a success story in keeping these offenders in complete isolation, essentially cutting off their influence in the outside world.  Gang leaders thrive off the ability to reach prison populations with their ideology and recruit more members.  Therefore, there is a need to keep leaders in total isolation in these maximum security prisons where such communication is an impossibility.  Supermax facilities like the one in Florence, Colorado should be replicated throughout the United States and Latin America to meet the challenges of housing prison gang leaders separately from their soldiers.  This approach is very costly, yet it is the most effective strategy for crippling the capabilities of prison gangs by diminishing the influence of the men who dominate the decision-making of gangs.

6. Gang Prevention Programs

Increased opportunities for education and gang prevention are two policy options that may further decrease gang activity.  The U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice, and Delinquency Prevention recommends a number of prevention strategies such as parent training, after school activities, truancy and dropout prevention, re-entry programs, tracking former offenders, and job programs for youth in high-risk neighborhoods.  The Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program places uniformed police officers as instructors in middle schools to teach students about the negative consequences of gang participation.  Non-profit groups like the Boys and Girls Club of America provide after-school activities that may keep children from joining gangs.  Some Central American countries have also enacted programs designed to prevent youths from turning to gangs, such as the Open Schools program to keep schools in high-risk neighborhoods, or “red zones,” open on the weekends and various vocational training efforts.  In Guatemala, for example, an alliance of human rights organizations provides schooling and social development activities to help at-risk youths raise their self-esteem.  These programs form an important starting point for Central America, Mexico and Brazil, but they should be expanded further, drawing on successful U.S. programs.  A scaled-up effort to change youth attitudes toward gang involvement could drastically reduce gang membership in the long run.

7. International Action to Address the Root Causes of Poverty and Interrupt the Drug Trade

National legislation is an important step in combating the prison gang problem.  However, most Central American countries lack strong government structures, resources, and incentives to enforce national laws.  International efforts are needed to strengthen the rule of law, address poverty, and expand educational opportunities.  National governments must continue their efforts to strengthen internal governance, increase stability, and create fair legal procedures, but Central American nations have thus far been unsuccessful at solving the problems posed by gangs alone. The only way to address these problems is with assistance from other countries in the form of an international initiative to address the root causes of gang activity.

8. Inmate Therapy

Rehabilitative programs offer another way to combat the root causes of gang membership.  Expanded rehabilitation efforts would serve to reintegrate gang members back into society.  As Juan Fogelbach has argued, “Gang members should be provided with alternatives to gang life, including education, music, art, youth sports, and trades that may allow them to survive in society.”[1]  Rehabilitation programs that assist gang members in developing a sense of self-esteem and acquiring skills to gain legal income will further deter gang activities.


[1] Fogelbach, Juan J. “Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) and Ley Anti Mara: El Salvador’s Struggle to Reclaim Social Order.” San Diego International Law Journal 7 (Fall 2005): 209-210.




Key Findings

Similarities between Prison Gangs in the United States and Latin America

1. Reasons for Expansion

Prison gangs from all four regions under examination were created as a form of self-protection, either from other inmate groups or from poor conditions and abuse by guards.  Once established, their reasons for expanding inside detention centers continued to focus on defensive measures; even offensive attacks against other inmates or guards are justified as defending the gang’s control over territory, people, or illegal commodities trades.  Recruiting other inmates strengthens the group physically, psychologically, and sometimes monetarily.

Once prison gangs establish operations outside prison walls, however, the profit motive becomes more important for expansion than self-protection.  Gangs may use their profits to increase prison activities, but greed often overshadows such intentions.  The gangs grow more violent as they evolve into arms and drug trafficking organizations because: (1) brutal reputations reinforce gang power on the “outside” (as opposed to reputations as protectors on the “inside”); (2) competition from other, often transnational, trafficking organizations increases; and (3) the expansion of power inside or outside detention facilities sparks rival factions and gang warfare that spreads from the prison system to the outside or vice versa.

States authorities must comprehend the differing reasons for gang expansion inside and outside prison if they are to effectively combat these growing prison organizations. Different anti-gang programs may be needed to address inmate and non-inmate gang members.

2. Gang Cooperation as a Response to State Activity

Prison gangs in the United States and Latin America have proven themselves to be remarkably adaptive to state actions against them.  In Rio de Janeiro, for example, prison-based gangs have battled each other for control of the city’s favelas for decades; yet, in response to Rio’s pre-Olympics/World Cup crackdown on drug dealers, several of the groups—such as Comando Vermelho and Amigos dos Amigos—have called truces in order to battle their common enemy together.

In the short-term, if the state attempts to eradicate one gang at a time, it may be more likely to achieve its goals than if it attacks all at once.  Gangs are less likely to interfere with state actions if they are seen as eliminating rivals.  In the long-term, however, a one-at-a-time approach may serve to strengthen the prison gangs that are addressed last by eliminating their competition, making complete eradication more difficult.  At the very least, gang cooperation in the face of state oppression provides law enforcement with a single enemy on which to concentrate its resources.

3. Prisons as Bases Strengthen Trafficking Organizations on the “Outside”

In the 2010 Small Arms Survey, Benjamin Lessing notes that the strongest law enforcement initiatives give prison gangs greater control over their non-inmate members.  While this seems counter-intuitive, gangs in the United States and Latin America prove the point.  Law enforcement officials in the United States, Mexico, Central America, and Brazil have the legislative authority and practical capability to arrest gang members for a variety of offences. Yet, the higher likelihood of a prison sentence means that gang members increasingly expect to face their leaders in jail, and thus to receive punishment for disobedience while they were on the streets.

This finding suggests the importance of interrupting communications between inmates and non-imprisoned gang members.  Often, a gang’s most powerful leaders are imprisoned but not sufficiently isolated, undermining the effect of efficient policing.

4. Recruitment via the Prison Establishment

Most law enforcement officials recognize the role of prisons as breeding grounds for gang membership.  Non-affiliated prisoners often join gangs after being arrested as a form of protection from other inmates.  In such cases, the reason prison gangs often form in the first place (self-defense) is the same incentive that new inmates have to lessen the threats that those gangs present.  The cyclical nature of recruitment implies the need for stricter separation of the inmate population or better prevention of inmate-on-inmate violence.

5. Decentralization

While all of the observed prison gangs have a centralized command structure within their own organization, the criminal networks in which they operate are more decentralized in nature.  These decentralized networks include smaller street gangs, drug traffickers, other prison gangs, and any other unlawful group that wishes to cooperate with the prison gangs for monetary benefit.  An advantage of these types of networks is that the disparate groups which comprise them draw less scrutiny from law enforcement, enabling the wider illicit activities of the prison gang in command to go unnoticed and unabated.  Should law enforcement officials decide to crack down on one part of the network, the greater whole will survive to continue to funnel money and weapons to the gang in charge.

6. Communication with External Supporters

The purpose of prison systems is to lock away criminals as punishment for their misdeeds against society, yet all of the observed prison gangs have the ability to communicate with members on the “outside.”  Communication is often enabled through family and friends who carry messages out of the corrections facilities after a scheduled visit.  When personal connections on the outside are unavailable, bribing or coercing prison guards to act as intermediaries often suffices.  Prisoners have a tendency to acquire female supporters through written letters and, in the case of the U.S.’s TRULINCS program, email correspondence to invoke sympathy for their plight.  These sympathizers are then willing to smuggle contraband into prisons, including mobile communication devices hidden in the soles of their shoes.  Usually, women act in support roles for prison gangs, with the exception of the Nazi Low Riders.  Wives and girlfriends of incarcerated NLR members actually run the gang’s drug business on the outside and sometimes commit violent crimes on their behalf.

7. Involvement in the Drug Trade

Prison gangs, much like street gangs, are heavily involved in drug trafficking as a primary source of income.  All of the observed prison gangs engage in some aspect of the drug trade including trafficking, wholesale supply, or retail sale.  In all cases, gangs had to dramatically increase membership to meet the demands of drug trafficking operations, the majority of which are transnational in nature.  The common drugs involved in all four regions are marijuana, heroin, and cocaine.  Involvement in the drug trade has proved to be very lucrative for all prison gangs, bringing in large sums of cash that are used to purchase firearms, strengthen membership, and fund more operations.

8. Brutality

Common among all prison gangs is the use of brutality as a premier tool with which to accomplish ends.  All of these prison gangs have distinguished reputations for violence and ruthlessness, both inside prison and outside in the streets, and all are feared among other inmates.  Prison gangs only accept the most violent inmates into their respective ranks because intimidation in prison is the primary goal of any gang and the only way to ensure survival.  In all cases, these prison gangs utilize the murder of other inmates and gang members to earn respect and build an image that instills fear in possible enemies.  Across all four regions, prison gangs display brutality that attracts a great amount of attention from law enforcement, who often develop a strong fear of prison gangs.

9. Dispersion of Members by Authorities

In all of the cases we have studied, authorities have attempted to break up prison gangs by dispersing key members to separate facilities.  This approach, however, has not had the intended effect of crippling prison gangs and has, on the contrary, proved counterproductive in all four regions.  As leaders are separated from their gangs, they are moved to other facilities providing new opportunities to spread their gang’s ideology to a new population and recruit even more members.  As a result, prison gangs have rapidly expanded into new territories, opening up new chapters and creating even more widespread instability for the state.  In most cases, dispersion of gang members, including deportation, has transformed gangs like MS-13 and other Latino prison gangs from national to transnational threats.

10. Lack of Rehabilitation Programs Inside Prisons

All of the prison gangs in the United States and Latin America lacked rehabilitation programs aimed at combating the root causes of gang membership and changing gang behavior.  This is partly caused by the insecure prison environment that creates the need for protection within prison walls and the corruption of prison officials who may benefit from the gangs’ illegal activities.  In U. S. prisons, rehabilitation programs include substance abuse and mental health programs, educational programs, and vocational training.  In South America, there are no prison rehabilitation programs and many inmates reported lack of work or other constructive activities in prison.  In Mexico and Central America, prisons lack rehabilitation programs but do provide some religious programs for gang members.

11. Release from Prison Back into Previous Environments

In all the countries we have studied, the location of prisoners after they are released is an area that all the prisons systems have neglected.  In fact, all of the countries’ prison systems lack an effective mechanism that could potentially remove gang member from their previous environment. The lack of such a capability is problematic because these environments may foster the previous gang life style and lead the gang member back to prison.

12. Unemployment Serving as a Mechanism Pushing Gang Members Back into Previous Gang Behavior

Unemployment among recently released inmates is widespread throughout all the countries we studied.  Gang members leave prison without any resources and return to criminal activity as a means of income.  Many gang members in these countries make connections in prison that allow them to acquire new criminal knowledge and venture into new criminal enterprises.  In the United States, there are outside organizations that will help the prisoners find employment.  These programs may provide some incentive for the gang members to cease their gang activity; however, program success has been limited since the income provided from employment is substantially less than the income gained from criminal activity.

13. Gang Codes Keep Inmates Involved in Gangs Outside the Prison System

All of the prison gangs in the United States and Latin America operate under codes which outline rules gang members must follow under threat of punishment.  In the prison system, the protection and benefits that flow from the gang relationship provide incentives for gang members to follow these rules.  Gang codes also effectively keep gang members loyal to prison gangs after they are released, since the high rate of recidivism creates the possibility that members will end up back in prison system.


1. National Approaches to Reform

Despite the similar patterns witnessed in the operations of U.S. and Latin American prison gangs, states have taken drastically different approaches in attempting to solve their inmate-related problems.  In the United States and Brazil, officials have discussed reducing prison sentences.  In Central America, a potential law enforcement reform includes the reduction of “hard hand” arrests, whereby people are arrested because of their gang tattoos, without having committed a crime.  Brazil has also considered adding more education programs for inmates.

On the one hand, the different tactics supply law enforcement communities with a wider pool of experiments from which to learn.  Different countries often require culture- and environment-sensitive reform programs to address the specific problems relevant to their prison systems.  On the other hand, the similarities found in the evolution of prison gangs suggest that international prison systems may share some of the same failures.  Rather than working independently, officials from different countries would learn more by sharing data on prison gangs’ exploitations of varying detention systems.

2. Transnational Affiliations

International affiliations vary by gang and by region.  While MS-13 has California/U.S. connections and has been known to work with Colombian traffickers, details of such activities are imprecise.  Similarly, Brazilian prison-based gangs receive drug shipments through Suriname and Paraguay, have worked in Peru and Bolivia, and trade arms for drugs with Colombia’s FARC.  Nonetheless, the relationships between organizations from different countries are rarely clearly delineated and often only anecdotal.

By contrast, U.S./Mexico border-region gangs are transnational in nature but do not necessarily combine operations with other transnational organizations.  U.S. prison gangs primarily work within their own country.

Therefore, when prison-based gangs become large enough to participate in transnational operations, they often do so sporadically and opportunistically.  Because multi-national law enforcement presents logistical and political challenges, police officials have strong incentives to address transnational gang relationships when developing anti-gang operations.  Despite their similarities, prison gangs still operate as autonomous entities, often with independent goals.

3. Treatment of Prisoners

Prisoner abuse is common around the world.  In Central and South America, in particular, prisoner neglect and mistreatment is common practice.  Stories of abuse from behind prison walls are often met with feelings of apathy from general publics and in the absence of public outcries which might otherwise constrain their actions, prison guards outside the United States continue to mistreat prisoners, perpetuating prisoner grievances against state authority.

4. Differences in Power and Control in Prison Systems

Perceptions of de facto power and control in U.S. and Latin American prison systems vary.  In the U.S.-Mexico region, corrections officials continue to have effective control over prisons where no single gang dominates the prison population.  Differences in race and ideology divide the major strategic threat groups in the United States, preventing gangs from working together except in mutually profitable circumstances.  In all other cases, prison gangs in this region are more likely to engage in violent competition than cooperation.  Moreover, the comparatively low levels of prisoner abuse in the United States removes a potentially uniting political cause around which these gangs might otherwise coalesce.

In stark contrast, south of the U.S.-Mexico border region, prisoners often run their own prisons. Substandard living conditions, overcrowding, lack of basic amenities, and unrestrained prisoner abuse within Brazilian prisons cause inmates to pledge allegiance to gangs, such as the CV and PCC, in the hope these organizations will improve prison conditions.  Consequently, prisoners are more willing to participate in gang-orchestrated prison riots in protest of government treatment.  Poor conditions in the slums increase gang support among local populations as well, enhancing gang influence and social and economic control outside prison.  These bases of support enable gangs to disrupt cities from within penal facilities, in some cases contesting the sovereignty of the state.

In Central America, prisons have become finishing schools for criminal gangs, facilitating the recruit of new members from the inmate populations and the continued direction of operations from the inside the penal system.  In some Central American countries, such as Guatemala, gangs dominate whole cell blocks and possess de facto control over entire prisons with prison guards effectively excluded from such areas.

5. Reasons for Formation

The rationale underlying gang formation differs significantly across prison gangs in the four regions we have studied.  The majority of prison gangs formed as a means of protection from other predatory gangs, poor prison conditions, or abuse by prison authorities.  Although the specific reasons for individual group formations vary, all of the gangs eventually transformed into for-profit criminal organizations.

6. Members with Military Experience

A regional division exists in the distribution of prison gangs that have members with military experience and those that do not.  All of the observed prison gangs located in the United States and Mexico possess members who have previously served in the armed forces of their respective countries prior to entry into gang life.  The prison gangs in Central America and Brazil lack members with similar military experience.  Membership with formal military training is a major strength for prison gangs, enhancing group capacity for armed violence and self-defense.

7. Ability to Operate Without Interference from State Authorities

One of the most important differences among the various regions is the ability of prison gangs within certain states to act outside the control of the state and without interference from authorities.  Prison gangs in the United States have the disadvantage of operating in an environment of strong state control, where criminal activities must avoid detection.  In Mexico, Brazil, and throughout Central America, significantly weaker states typically lack the capacity to successfully combat the operations of prison gangs, especially in major cities.  These gangs are thus able to operate outside the control of states, often conducting criminal activities in an overt and public manner.  Gang operations in these countries are facilitated by widespread public corruption.

8. Separation of Different Gang Members in Central American Prisons

Central American prisons are unique among the penal systems described here in their inability to separate rival gang members.  In nearly all instances, this incapacity results from a lack of state resources.  While some Central American prisons are fully controlled by one gang,  many facilities are inhabited by two or more rival groups.  Where removal to separate facilities has not been an option, some prison authorities have attempted to separate the rival gangs by floor or cell.  In general, this system has been highly ineffective.  Particularly when rival gang members have been incorrectly placed in the same cells or on the same floors, prison riots have repeatedly resulted.  In Guatemala, for example, MS-13 members staged simultaneous attacks against M-18 members at seven different prisons using grenades, guns, and knives.  In the chronically underfunded and overcrowded Honduran penal system, another gang riot left thirteen inmates dead and thirty-eight injured.

9. Forced Recruitment

In Central America, recruitment of new members is critical to maintaining and increasing power for both MS-13 and MS-18 members.  Although recruitment can be voluntary, many gangs rely heavily on forced recruitment.  This Central American practice contrast sharply with the voluntary recruitment process among groups in the United States, Brazil, and Mexico.

Larger Implications: Why the Similarities and Differences Matter

1. Potential for More Inter-Gang Alliances and Operation Spillover

As the gangs under scrutiny continue to expand beyond prison walls, become more violent, and partner with one another to combat law enforcement initiatives, the possibility of increased cooperation with other criminal organizations exists.  Expanded operations lead to an expanded group of associates.  If those relationships are transnational in nature, gangs can exploit differences in national laws and police surveillance for their own advantage.  Each group’s familiarity with the prison systems of their own nation places them in an advantageous position to compare experiences.  Even when cooperation is limited to other domestic groups, prison-based gangs will benefit from exposure to additional illegal activities and trades with which their new partners are more familiar.

2. Prison Systems and Regulations Require Reform to Counter Gang Expansion

As the similarities above demonstrate, prison gangs perpetuate themselves through flaws in prison systems, benefiting from protocols with double-edge effects.  The procedure of sorting gang members away from general populations reinforces central hierarchy and control as gang populations become more concentrated, and policies meant to rehabilitate and address the needs of prisoners—family visits, religious worship, education programs, etc.—often facilitate illicit activities, for example, through the use of visitors to smuggle contraband into prisons and direct criminal actions outside.  In essence, prisons have become hubs for criminal enterprise where gangs are able to direct their for-profit operations and recruit new members to increase their power within the system.

Reform is essential both to stifle the growth of existing security threat groups and to prevent the emergence of new, younger gangs that may take the same evolutionary path of the older groups, eventually eclipsing their predecessors to seize dominance in national and transnational criminal networks.  As the Nazi Low Riders in the United States have shown, new gangs are regularly as violent and disruptive to society as the ones that preceded them, and with the concurrent evolution of modern technology and communication, they have the opportunity to become more dangerous to the state.

3. Dual Approach in Combating Prison Gangs

Authorities involved in law enforcement have been relatively successful in seeking out and arresting prison gang members in all four regions.  Gang task forces and numerous racketeering laws have been established in many regions to crack down on gang members in particular.  Once these individuals are incarcerated, however, efforts to combat gang activity are largely ended.  The analysis presented here has highlighted the need for a dual approach that not only emphasizes eliminating gangs among society at large but also stresses the need to counter gang influence inside prisons where such groups currently flourish.  Authorities must closely monitor incarcerated gang members while they are in prison and continue to expand law enforcement gang intelligence.  Few additional options exist to counter the criminal motives of gang members after incarceration.  Prison officials should focus efforts on the institution of preventative programs aimed at deterring non-gang-affiliated inmates from joining prison gangs.

4. Deportation as a Catalyst for Gang Formation in Mexico and Central America

The United States began deporting immigrants convicted of criminal activity to their countries of origin after the passage of the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996.  The IIRIRA increased removals by expanding categories of deportation, restricting the ability to appeal deportation, and increasing the range of criminal offenses triggering deportation.  The U.S. government asserts that the deportation campaign is designed to target immigrants who have committed serious violent crimes; however, most removals to date have been noncriminal immigrants from Mexico and Central America.[1]  In 2008, 358,886 noncitizens were removed from the United States.  Of these, almost 69% (246,851) originated from Mexico, 29% of whom were criminals, and nearly 22% (78,726) were from Central America, 78% of whom were criminals.[2]  This mass deportation of criminals to both Central America and Mexico combined with the failure to notify national authorities of criminal backgrounds not only leaves these governments unprepared, but also places gang members largely unfamiliar with these foreign countries in a position to further identify with their gang and expand its organization.  Current U.S. deportation policies should be revised in cooperation with governments from Mexico and Central America. Reforming existing oversights will benefit affected destination countries while decreasing the likelihood of the return of criminal immigrants to the United States.


[1] Hagan, Jaqueline, Brianna Castro, and Nestor Rodriguez. “The effects of U.S. Deportation Policies on Immigrant Families and Communities: Cross-border perspectives,” North Carolina Law Review 88 (2010): 1809. http://www.nclawreview.org/documents/88/5/hagan.pdf

[2] Ibid.

Image Source:

Overcrowded Cell: R. Renee Yaworsky. “Poor Conditions Lead to Third Prison Riot in One Week.” Peace and Collaborative Development Network. Accessed 15 November 2010. http://www.internationalpeaceandconflict.org/photo/poor-conditions-lead-to-third?context=latest.


South America: Brazil

Author: Sara Masciola

Comando Vermelho (CV, “Red Command”): Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


The Comando Vermelho (CV) formed in 1979 in Candido Mendes prison on Ilha Grande, an island off the coast of Rio de Janeiro.[1] It was spurred by a 1969 act under Brazil’s military dictatorship (the Lei de Seguranca Nacional, LSN),[2] which classified both political prisoners—mostly educated leftists who frequently used robbery to finance their activities—and “common bank robbers” as national security threats.[3] Both groups were housed in the same prison unit, Galeria B.[4] Over time, the organizational structure and anti-state ideology of the political prisoners was adopted by the common prisoners (called “o coletivo,” or the collective) in an effort to gain prisoner rights against the jail’s systematic torture and prohibition of amenities, such as soap and blankets.[5]

In the mid-1970s, the political prisoners were transferred to mainland penitentiaries, and the collective was integrated into the general prison population in Candido Mendes, where they developed an internal security system.[6] According to one of the founders, William da Silva, “[E]veryone could have their own small businesses. All that was prohibited was killing, stealing, raping, and, of course, informing.”[7] They also used hunger strikes and letters to the press to draw attention to prison conditions—both techniques learned from their leftist cellmates in the early 1970s.[8]

In 1979, the Falange LSN (as they were calling themselves at the time) killed several rival leaders and became the dominant gang in the prison.[9] Prison authorities attempted to crush the influence of the CV by transferring its members to other penitentiaries, but this resulted in the spread of the “collective” ideology. [The original name of the group was the Grupo Uniao Gremio Recreativa e Esportiva do Presidio Ilha Grande. Authorities referred to them as the Falange Vermelho, later the Comando Vermelho, to project a dangerous image, and the press circulated the name.][10]

As prisoners escaped or were released, the gang’s focus shifted to drug trafficking, with Rio de Janeiro’s favelas as points of sale. Many of the CV members originated in the favelas, and drug-dealing in marijuana was a common feature in such places;[11] therefore, when the higher-profit cocaine trade emerged in the 1980s, the favelas were natural stockpile and distribution points. Following a series of turf wars in the 1980s, the CV controlled the drug trade in 70% of Rio’s favelas.[12]

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the nature of the Comando Vermelho began to change. Larger caliber weapons were purchased by the CV from the former Soviet Union after its collapse, when ex-bureaucrats “were selling even anti-aircraft weapons at affordable prices.”[13] International disagreements also led to an increase in territorial disputes and conflicts between CV figures. By the mid-90s, three competing splinter factions were formed: Terceiro Comando, Comando Vermelho Jovem, and Amigos dos Amigos.[14]

In 2005, the CV controlled 53% of Rio’s most violent areas, but that number dropped to 38.8% in 2008. In 2009, 40% of favelas were controlled by the Comando Vermelho. Local researchers connect the CV’s losses to the rising power of militia gangs.[15] Also as of 2009, the total amount of refined cocaine in the market each month was estimated at 660 kg (compared to 330 kg for the Pure Third Command and 300 kg for Friends of Friends). The monthly figure for marijuana is 2,600 kg.[16] Yet, despite loss of territory and internal fracture, the Comando Vermelho retains its original strength in the prison system today.[17]

Video on Comando Vermelho Gang Members

Current Operating Situation

The Comando Vermelho does not have a solitary leader.[18] However, former favela boss Luiz Fernando da Costa (known as Fernandinho Beira-Mar) is cited by most observers as one of the top leaders of the organization. Arrested in 1996 in Brazil,[19] Beira-Mar escaped in 1997 after paying a multi-million dollar bribe to prison guards.[20] He was re-arrested in 2001 by Colombian authorities, as he was trading weapons for drugs with FARC (later extradited to Brazil).[21] In 2003, Beira-Mar orchestrated massive riots before the Carnival festival with a cell phone,[22] and he was transferred to a prison that would block cell phone reception; but a month later, the Brazilian president accused him of ordering the murder of a prominent judge.[23] Coordinated operations continue from the detention center.

The CV can be described as a loose organization comprised of several trafficking crews (quadrilhas), each of which controls its own favela(s).[24] When quadrilhas need guns, drugs, or soldiers to help fight a rival group, CV members in other favelas provide them.[25] Therefore, while comando-level organization is decentralized and frequently horizontal, trafficking hierarchies do exist in the favelas (i.e. traffickers, managers and under-managers, sellers at point-of-sale, armed security, vapores [street sellers inside and outside of the favela], look-outs, packagers, and avioes, or young drug deliverers).[26]

Gang membership does not depend on familial ties or political ideology, but members often share a similar sociological and economic background. Most street-level dealers are in their teens, though members become involved in drug trafficking when they are as young as ten or eleven.[27] The average age of favela chiefs, meanwhile, was estimated to be between 17 and 18, since most older leaders operate from prison (Source: The Chief of the Division of Oversight on Arms and Explosives of the Civil Police in Rio de Janeiro, 2005).[28] Recruitment within the favelas is targeted at young people “based on the promise of earning ‘easy money,’ power and fame.”[29]

Favela residents do not frequently oppose the CV’s presence for 3 reasons. First is the patronage system. Located outside of the city’s purview, favela dwellers are offered social services by the CV to consolidate their support. These services include van transportation, cable, youth development programs, public dance parties (bailes funk), and provision of soccer fields.[30] Other goods provided are school supplies, medicine, gas tanks for cooking, placement in a hospital, and payment for funeral arrangements. Requests for larger favors are transferred to Comando leaders in prison, who then grant it.[31] Second is the so-called “law of the hillside.” In a similar strategy of reciprocity, CV members do not allow petty or violent crime in the favelas in exchange for residents’ silence about their illegal activities.[32] This ‘code’ is also used to prevent the police from regularly entering CV territory.[33] Third is the use of fear and terror tactics. Despite the imposed order, CV members intimidate residents, coerce favela girls to sleep with them, fire guns randomly, and publically show off their weapons to reinforce their image of power.[34]

In the prison system, a centralized president and vice president control internal prison activities, resolve CV disputes that occur outside of prison, and make final judgments on CV-wide decisions.[35] Day-to-day leadership on “the outside” is provided by the CV head of each favela, but the more powerful bosses in prison are still able to orchestrate coordinated campaigns. An example is the 2002 shutdown of Rio de Janeiro, which is suspect to have been instigated by Beira-Mar in protest of his transfer to a higher security prison following a prison riot.[36]

In the 2010 Small Arms Survey, Benjamin Lessing concluded that improvements in Brazilian law enforcement have consolidated the hold that CV prison bosses have on favela gang members and affiliates. Their control over the prison system gives the bosses leverage over members on the outside by giving credibility to their promises of reward or punishment upon a member’s recapture.[37] Additionally, informal CV membership may occur in prison, with newly-arrived inmates. This is because jails are divided by faction, and those who are unaffiliated with a group are labeled according to the territory from which they came. The segregation is justified by authorities as a form of prisoner protection in the understaffed facilities.[38]

Communications between Comando Vermelho members inside and outside of prison are basic, but their use is varied, resulting in surveillance challenges for law enforcement. The Brazilian newspaper, O Globo, reported: “In some cases, one prisoner calls a subordinate via cell on the outside who uses a two-way radio to transmit the message to a third individual who then uses another cell phone to pass along the message to its recipient in another prison. Each node on the communications network may use any number of cell phones or two-way radios, making tracking the signals very difficult.”[39]

CV wives and girlfriends also smuggle contraband to gang members during prison visits,[40] who are typically able to operate their organizations from inside prison walls due to lax regulations. Prisoners are allowed to possess cell phones because prison authorities do not believe an operation for their removal would be successful.[41] Prison authorities have also accepted bribes from the CV, in exchange for guns and permission to access other sections of the prison to fight rival gangs. For instance, Beira-Mar bribed jailers for guns and keys in 2002, which allowed him to pass through six security gates to murder a rival gang leader.[42]

Moreover, authorities oversee permissive sentences for Comando Vermelho crimes. For example, the CV commander in the Pavao-Pavaozinho favela was temporarily released from prison so that he could visit his family at Christmas (he never returned), and Carlos Eduardo Toledo Lima was given a one-year “open regime” sentence after he dragged a 6-year-old boy to death during a carjacking (he only goes to jail at night).[43]

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

Currently, the gang engages in drug trafficking (primarily cocaine and marijuana), weapons trafficking, kidnapping for ransom,[44] car theft,[45] and “opportunistic street crime,” such as tourist-targeting.[46] Members also extort protection fees from favela businesses and obtain additional income from their monopoly on services, like van transportation and pirated-cable TV.[47]

Though their main operations take place in Rio de Janeiro, the CV has also been connected to Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, and Suriname in multiple ways. First, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) intermittently hides CV crime lords from authorities,[48] and in 2001, the Colombian army arrested several CV members and confiscated documents describing how FARC rebels received arms from Beira-Mar in exchange for shipments of cocaine bound for Brazil.[49] Second, Peru, Colombia, and Paraguay have all been sites for Beira-Mar’s operations. He established the base in Paraguay for 13 years before his arrest.[50]

Third, federal police believe most trafficked drugs and weapons arrive in Brazil through the borders with Paraguay and Suriname. Weapons are broken down and hidden in vehicles at crossing points. With an increase in bridge inspections, traffickers cross rivers by boat and dump weapons in the water for later retrieval.[51] Weapons and munitions that arrive in Brazil via Suriname originate in Libya, Russia, and China.[52]

CV influence extends to other cities in Brazil, as well, due to its connection with Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC, “First Command of the Capital”)—a gang that also originated in prison and controls the drug trade in Sao Paulo. In the early 1990s, the CV supported the founding of the PCC,[53] which later adopted the CV motto, “Liberty, Justice, and Peace.”[54] In addition, the PCC’s manifesto “refers to a coalition with the Red Command that will ‘revolutionize the country from within prisons.’”[55] Beira-Mar supplied the PCC’s leader with cocaine and introduced the group to FARC in 2001 or 2002.[56] Recently, the PCC copied a known CV technique when it orchestrated synchronized prison riots and attacks on police and civilian targets, resulting in the shutdown of Sao Paulo.[57]

[City-wide shutdowns in Rio have been a Comando Vermelho technique since 2002. They use threats to intimidate businesses, schools, and transportation lines into closing in order to demonstrate CV power to authorities and to protest the transfer of leaders to higher security prisons.[58]]

The gang’s connections to city police sometimes ease trafficking operations. A history of police violence against civilians and impunity for their crimes means that few favela residents view the police as a possible alternative to the CV for their security.[59] A “tax,” or monthly payment, is paid to the police so they will ignore trafficking activities. Policemen may also practice mineira (detaining a person for trafficking and demanding payment for release) or may be connected to weapons trafficking themselves. The relationship, however, is often volatile. Some policemen have tried to sell detainees to rival organizations,[60] and militias run by retired and off-duty policemen have become CV rivals, in that they now control 41.5% of favelas, compared to the CV’s 40%.[61]

Police confiscate cocaine during a raid of the Complexo do Alemao favela.

Since Brazil won the bids for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, the activities of the Comando Vermelho have been under increased scrutiny by the state. The local and federal governments have begun a campaign against the favela gangs in Rio de Janeiro in preparation for the city’s international visitors. Since 2008, the state governor, Sergio Cabral, has orchestrated a long-term campaign to police the favelas: “Pacifying Police Units” order gangs to leave the favelas, follow the ultimatum with heavy patrolling, and then provide 24-hour policing.[62] Furthermore, after federal forces overtook the CV’s Complexo do Alemao favela, they sent garbage collectors into the slum, extending state services to the previously unreached areas.[63]

Starting as a prison gang in the late 1970s, Comando Vermelho evolved into Rio de Janeiro’s most powerful drug trafficking organization, with influence all over South America. Today, the CV has lost some of that power, as well as territorial control, and the Brazilian government is concentrating on its suppression. Nonetheless, its original power centralized in the prison system remains robust.

Amigos dos Amigos (ADA, “Friends of Friends”): Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


As a faction of Comando Vermelho, the history of Amigos dos Amigos (ADA) parallels that of the former group until the late 1990s. Its origins in prison, as well as its ideological foundation, stemmed from prisoner abuse and a code of solidarity learned from leftist-leaning political dissidents. Stories about the ADA’s formation vary, depending upon the source. According to Neate and Platt, it was created in 1996 after the murder of Orlando Jogador, the CV head of Complexo do Alemao. Jogador was killed by another of the gang’s most powerful traffickers—named Uê—after they had declared a truce. The imprisoned CV leaders were divided as to whether or not to execute Uê, and those against execution split from the gang and formed Amigos dos Amigos.[64]

By 2009, ADA members oversaw drug market transactions for 300 kg of refined cocaine and 900 kg of marijuana each month.[65]

A section of the Rocinha Favela

Tensions between the ADA and the CV escalated throughout the group’s first decade. Since the ADA wrested control of the Rocinha favela from the CV, the latter gang has made numerous attempts to win it back. In 2004, Eduino Araujo (“Dudu”), a former CV leader in Rocinha known for sadism, launched an invasion of the favela.[66] He was defeated, but in the process, the ADA leader (Luciano Barbarosa da Silva) was killed by intervening police.[67]

In October 2009, CV gunmen entered the ADA-controlled Morro dos Macacos favela in another attempt to overtake its territory and inherent drug trade.[68] Thirty-one people were killed, including three policemen whose helicopter was shot down in an attempt to suppress the fighting.[69]

While the ADA thrived as a main rival of the CV for over a decade, in November 2010, the group joined forces with Red Command to fight police and federal forces who were taking over the Complexo do Alemao favela—a CV stronghold.[70] Prior to the firefight, police had raided ADA headquarters in the Vila do Cruzeiro favela; ADA gangsters then moved their weapons and soldiers to Complexo do Alemao and continued the battle as the CV defended its own territory.[71] It was speculated that the gangs’ common interest in hindering police efforts was stronger than their animosity for each other.[72]

Current Operating Situation

The most powerful leaders of the ADA are often the leaders of Rio’s—some say Latin America’s—largest favela, Rocinha. From April 2004 until October 2005, that man was Erismar Rodrigues Moreira (aka “Bem-Te-Vi”).[73] By the time of his death during a police raid, he had become one of Rio de Janeiro’s most wanted men.[74] Prior to Moreira’s rule, Rocinha had been controlled by the violent Luciano Barbosa da Silva, who was killed by police during the 2004 favela battle.[75]

By 2010, Rocinha’s leader was Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes (“Nem”), whose network agreed to a truce with other Rio gangs so that they could concentrate on defeating police pacification efforts.[76] Nem evaded capture until mid-November 2011. A few days later, Rocinha was overtaken and occupied by the Rio police, and authorities subsequently provided policing, healthcare, and electricity to the favela; reportedly, the takeover occurred without shots fired, and all drug gangs were driven from the shantytown.[77]

Though ADA organizational structure in the favelas is similar to that of the Comando Vermelho, there are also significant differences in the operating styles of the two groups. First, Zaluar claims that ADA’s split from the CV was partially a response to the increased violence of younger CV traffickers after many of their older leaders were imprisoned.[78] Rather than gaining the respect of favela residents, the younger men were increasingly terrorizing them; therefore, the ADA reinstituted a strict principle of reciprocity in their favelas to allow for better relations with their neighbors, and thus, the possibility of future expansion for their trafficking operations.[79]

Second, the ADA has traditionally sought a “working relationship” with the police, rather than viewing state forces as stark enemies.[80] For example, in 2002, the leader of the ADA in northern Rocinha—only partially controlled by the ADA at the time—was Celso Luis Rodrigues, also known as Celsinho.[81] Those under Celsinho’s command did not intentionally kill police; instead, the ADA bribed them.[82] In return, Celsinho gained access to a police car and uniform whenever he wanted to leave the favela.[83]

Finally, ADA-controlled favelas have not always been as tightly bound as those under CV control. While the Amigos dos Amigos groups shared similar ideals and practices, the gang’s earlier years were marked by an agreement not to interfere in each other’s affairs.[84] As mentioned earlier, however, the recent police crackdown on Rio gangs has forced even rivals to help each other.

Not much is written about ADA activities in prison. Like the CV, the gang has a strong inmate presence and does a lot of recruiting while detained. Again, this is mostly due to authorities’ habit of assigning new, unaffiliated prisoners to sections of the jail controlled by one or another faction; prisoners often join a gang by default as a survival technique.[85]

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

ADA operations are similar to those of other trafficking and prison gangs in Rio and Sao Paulo. A 2009 report from the Joint Special Operations University (a component of the United States Special Operations Command) summarized the situation as follows:

“The PCC, CV, TCP, and ADA have firepower based on automatic rifles, submachine guns, pistols, and hand grenades. They often employ children to deliver drugs and to get information about troop move­ments. The gangs use caches to hide weapons and ammunition and employ cell phones, small radios, and communications using fireworks and visual signs. When at a disadvantage, they mix with the local population, and in critical situations they may use the population as a shield. More and more they are employing urban guerrilla tactics, techniques, and procedures.”[86]

Cross-border drug and weapons trafficking between Paraguay and Brazil is common. In 2008, Brazilian authorities seized “4.5 tons of marijuana that had been hidden under 1.5 tons of rice in a wagon parked in a warehouse;” the ADA had driven the load to Rio from Paraguay, along with “12 gauge shotguns and 50 boxes of ammunition.”[87]

Amigos dos Amigos emerged from the ranks of the Comando Vermelho to become one of its main rivals in Rio de Janeiro. Yet, with the increased pressure applied to both gangs by local and federal police, the ADA and CV have recently begun to tolerate each other for the sake of survival. Furthermore, not much has been written about the ADA presence in the prison system. Though some of their most powerful leaders have been incarcerated, the CV still retains an overall greater hold on Brazilian inmates.

Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC, “First Command of the Capital”): Sao Paulo, Brazil


Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) formed in 1993 in Taubate Penitentiary in Sao Paulo, Brazil.[88] The formation was influenced by the 1992 Carandiru Massacre, when state military police killed more than one hundred prisoners.[89] According to witnesses of the 1992 violence, many of the dead were summarily executed after they surrendered.[90] After the event, the director of the Carandiru prison was transferred to Taubate Penitentiary, where torture, isolation, and beatings were commonplace.[91] A group of prisoners soon thereafter formed the PCC. Their stated objectives were to “fight the oppression inside the Sao Paulo state penitentiary system,” and “to avenge the death of 111 prisoners.”[92]

The original motivation behind the PCC’s founding was directly connected to prisoner rights and poor prison conditions, both of which were to be addressed through prisoner solidarity. The gang adopted the CV’s slogan, “Liberty, Justice, and Peace,”[93] and was strongly influenced by the aforementioned group’s prohibition against murder, theft, and rape.[94] The PCC developed a sixteen-point manifesto outlining group ideology; acceptance of the manifesto is still required for membership: [95]

Importantly, among the goals of the manifesto was (and still is) the desire for expansion outside of the prison system to achieve national notoriety.[96] As Taubate inmates were transferred to less restrictive prisons, they shared the manifesto with the general prison population, and PPC membership swelled.[97] Over time, PCC leaders negotiated the transfers of key gang members in order to keep their control of numerous prisons in Sao Paulo.[98]

In 1995, one of the PCC’s founders, Misael Aparecido da Silva, wrote “Party of Crime,” a manifesto which became required reading for gang membership.[99] Reminiscent of the Comando Vermelho’s refrains about the state causing violence through its oppression of the weak and poor, “Party of Crime” echoes themes of injustice, inequality, and violence: “Today’s children who humiliate themselves begging will tomorrow, through crime, transform their dreams into reality, with all hatred, all revolt, for the oppressed of today will be the oppressor of tomorrow. What is not won with words will be won with violence and a gun in hand. Our goal is to affect the powerful, the owners of the world, and the unequal justice; we are not criminals by choice and yes we are subversives and idealists.”[100]

The early 2000s witnessed a marked increase in PCC violence. In February 2001, inmates in twenty-nine Sao Paulo prisons launched rebellions. The PCC coordinated the event via cell phones and an innovative “switchboard” system that allowed for conference calls.[101] International attention focused on the group for the first time, and the riots inspired thousands of new recruits.[102] Between January and May of the following year, members were found responsible for fourteen attacks on public buildings, mostly with bombs. In November and December of 2003, forty-four attacks on police stations occurred, all coordinated by the PCC.[103]

Around the same time as the attacks against their external enemies, the PCC experienced dissention within its ranks. In 2001 and 2002, an internal dispute arose concerning the organization’s leadership. Fifteen leaders—including Idemir Carlos Ambósio, who led coordinated prison riots in 2001—were killed, and Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho emerged as the PCC’s primary boss.[104]

Prisoners riot during 2006 violence in Sao Paulo

In May 2006, the gang coordinated simultaneous prison riots in over 80 Sao Paulo detention centers and 10 facilities in Paraná and Mato Grosso do Sul.[105] When police were called to quell the prison riots, PCC affiliates outside of prison attacked Sao Paulo cities over several days.[106] Some authorities believe that, like the CV’s 2002 shutdown of Rio de Janeiro, this attack was a response to the state’s decision to transfer 765 PCC members to a higher security penitentiary.[107] Others blame prison regimes that have limited human contact for inmates.[108]

Recently, internal problems in the PCC have resulted in the appearance of independent, minority factions: Terceiro Comando da Capital (TCC—Third Capital Command); Comitê da Liberdade (CDL—Freedom Committee); Comando Revolucionário Brasileiro da Crimi­nalidade (CRBC—Criminality Brazilian Revolutionary Command); and Comando Vermelho Jovem da Criminalidade (CVJC—Criminality Young Red Command).[109]

Nevertheless, in the 2010 Small Arms Survey, Primeiro Comando da Capital was described as “so powerful that it resembles a full-blown insurgency in some respects.”[110] It now controls 90% of prisons in Sao Paulo state.[111]

Current Operating Situation

Gunmen shot at the Parada de Taipas police station in Sao Paulo (2006)

Since 2002, the PCC’s leader has been Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, or Marcola (“Playboy”). He is currently serving a 40-year prison sentence for bank robbery and is known for his intellectualism and interest in political manifestos.[112] Though Marcola is jailed at a maximum security prison (Presidente Bernardes Penitentiary), his deputies are all imprisoned in the same high security establishment, Presidente Venceslau.[113]

PCC structure is strictly hierarchical. Members inside and outside of prison are either soldiers, towers (PCC leader in a specific prison), or pilots (in charge of communications).[114] All are expected to pay membership dues each month, which range from $25 for prisoners to $225 for non-prisoners.[115] From fees alone, the gang takes in an estimated $500,000 per month.[116]

Loyalty to the PCC—and to Marcola, in particular—is consolidated with a mixture of terror and goods provision. As of 2009, 500 prisoners were being killed each year, and those who did not want to pay their debts to the PCC or continue with gang operations were “obliged to commit suicide.”[117] Yet, prisoners also benefit from PCC innovations, such as a private transportation and lodging system to allow inmates’ families to visit them.[118]

Great disparity exists in the information that Brazilian law enforcement officials possess regarding the scope of the PCC. In 2006, official membership was estimated at 6,000; this accounts for the number of members who paid monthly dues as required to be a part of the organizational hierarchy.[119] Representatives from the Sao Paulo Department of Investigation of Organized Crime (DIOC) also testified that the PCC controls more than 140,000 prisoners in the state, but some inmates falsely claim membership as a survival technique while incarcerated.[120] Furthermore, the DIOC believes nearly 500,000 Brazilians support the PCC outside of prison as lawyers, drug dealers, informants, etc.[121]

Similar to the Comando Vermelho, PCC communications from inside prison are conducted by cell phone in a permissive prison environment.[122] Guards open to bribery allow inmates’ visitors to bring them phones, which in turn, makes the coordination of state-wide prison riots possible.[123] Yet, even non-corrupt prison officials cannot prevent contraband from entering prisoners’ cells, as guards cannot search lawyers, who often transfer cell phones, laptops, radios, etc. to their clients.[124]

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

Many experts argue that the PCC’s “‘fundamental reason to exist is to improve the rights of prisoners.’ Drug trafficking and other criminal activities are done primarily to increase the organization’s leverage and funding.”[125] Funds from such activities are used for prisoner welfare, such as sending former prisoners to law school or assisting PCC families.[126]

Nevertheless, the criminal aspect of the PCC has grown with time, demonstrating what journalist Samuel Logan describes as “its own style of mission creep.”[127] For example, membership fees are often used to buy weapons and drugs and to bail PCC members out of jail.[128] The PCC has also paid for their members to enroll in qualification courses run by security companies—so they can handle more powerful weaponry—and to train in offensive and defensive driving courses.[129] The group is extensively involved in drug trafficking, arms trafficking, kidnapping, prison escapes, and robberies.[130] Furthermore, it uses exceptional brutality to terrorize the population of Sao Paulo and to project an image of power. [Empty] city buses are burned, and PCC enemies are decapitated, disemboweled, and set on fire.[131]

Researchers note that the PCC has monopolized wholesale drug distribution—obligating dealers to buy its supplies—and has established a dealer behavioral code.[132] This code discourages violence against other dealers, rivals, or the police without PCC approval, and it is an effort to prevent unnecessary police crackdowns in favelas.[133]

Like its informal ally, the Comando Vermelho, the PCC began to trade arms for drugs with Colombia’s FARC after the CV’s leader introduced the two groups in 2001 or 2002.[134] Additionally, FARC provides the PCC with advice and training on kidnapping techniques; almost three-fourths of Sao Paulo state’s kidnappings are attributed to the PCC.[135] Also credited with helping the PCC organize its kidnapping ring is Mauricio Normabuena, a Chilean captain in the militant Frente Patriotico Manuel Rodriguez who was arrested in Brazil and shared a cell with Marcola.[136]

The PCC also controls sales points and transportation routes for drug and weapons trafficking in Paraguay, Bolivia, Colombia, and Suriname.[137] Trafficking across borders is conducted through methods similar to those mentioned for Comando Vermelho.

The PCC’s relationship with politicians is varied. While there is little evidence that the group directly controls elections, some observers believed the May 2006 (election year) prison attacks were timed to influence political leaders.[138] Afterward, Marcola told a local radio station that he negotiated with Sao Paulo authorities to end the attacks in exchange for prisoners’ rights to visit their lawyers and spend time out of their cells. The authorities denied it, but experts believe the same types of negotiations did occur and then repeated during riots the following July and August.[139]

Furthermore, the PCC has a history of political involvement. In 2001, it designated its first Congressional candidate to run for office, Anselmo Neves Maia, who was also a lawyer for the PCC leadership.[140] The gang planned to develop a political party called the Party of the Incarcerated Community (also PCC), and its general secretary at the time was serving six years in prison for robbery.[141] In 2009, law enforcement officials reported their suspicions that the PCC was preparing to invest in and elect members of the Chamber of Deputies.[142]

Primeiro Comando da Capital began in response to appalling prison conditions and unwarranted force by authorities, but it evolved into a statewide prison organization that currently dominates the drug trade in Sao Paulo. Many observers ascribe grand political ambitions to the gang, which is heavily influenced by its leftist ideology, and anecdotal evidence suggests they may be correct.

Regional Analysis

All three of the gangs profiled above formed in reaction to poor prison conditions, from a lack of basic amenities to physical abuse by guards. If such conditions had changed over time, one might be able to blame the continued existence of the CV, ADA, and PCC solely on the quest for drug trade profits; however, according to a former head of the Ford Foundation in Brazil, many detention centers still do not provide prisoners with clothes, toiletries, or mattresses.[143] In 2010, a national report also showed that Brazilian prisons were over their capacity by 140,000 people.[144]

Sao Paulo prisoners

Poor living conditions and overcrowding are both viewed by the government and human rights groups as critical factors in the regular prison riots that plague the nation.[145] A new law was passed in mid-2011 that would shorten prisoners’ sentences by one day for every 12 hours that they spent in education programs, but the effect on overcrowding remains to be seen.[146] Therefore, the original impetus for each gang continues unabated—though not unnoticed by authorities or human rights organizations.

One result of these inhumane conditions is credibility for the gangs at the expense of the state. The CV and PCC can still claim to fight for “Liberty, Justice, and Peace” with a certain degree of accuracy. Furthermore, poor conditions in the country’s slums alienate a large portion of Brazil’s population, giving them little reason to trust the state for its protection—as opposed to the patronizing drug dealers—and providing them with a socioeconomic link to the gang members. While the CV and ADA interact with the poorer population in their favelas, the PCC has also turned to politics and a platform of reform to communicate with the people on “the outside” (that is, those whom they do not already deal with directly). Anger over injustice resonates with the poor both inside and outside of prison, whether or not they are criminals.

Criminal operations also continue inside jails because authorities are unable to curb the corruption of prison guards. For example, bribed guards provide all of the gangs with weapons, cell phones, and access to prohibited sections of jails, and even those officials who do not directly cooperate are unable to prevent inmates’ lawyers from sneaking in contraband. Moreover, the policy of dividing prisoners by faction and assigning unaffiliated men to a section based on place of origin aids each gang with recruitment.

Yet, the full power of the Brazilian state is not always available to interrupt the cycle of poverty, imprisonment, and corruption. The constitution gives power over the police and prison systems to state governments.[147] For example, after the May 2006 Sao Paulo riots, Brazil’s president repeatedly offered the state’s governor access to federal troops, but the offer was declined for political reasons.[148] Nonetheless, despite questions of sovereignty, the federal government is not helpless to intervene. Following similar riots in July 2006, it pledged $46 million for new prisons and surveillance equipment in Sao Paulo.[149] Human rights groups have also suggested that the national government withhold funding from states to coerce them toward prison reform.[150]

Another trend witnessed in the evolution of Brazilian prison gangs is the appearance of rival factions from within the ranks. As the groups expanded, disagreements naturally arose, and splinter groups formed. The original prison ethos, therefore, spread to new gangs but also changed with the emergence of differences regarding violence, drug trade management, and territorial control.

In addition to internal disagreements, economic interests also shifted the prison ethos from a concentration on rights to a focus on profit. Tellingly, the PCC is the only gang of the three that is recognized by observers as existing to improve prisoners’ living conditions. The older Comando Vermelho, on the other hand, is now known primarily as a drug trafficking organization that uses socially-minded communiqués to justify its violence. How long it will take before such “mission creep” completely overshadows the PCC image is a matter of opinion; in reality, the group already finances its political activities and charitable acts through drug trafficking. Furthermore, because poverty is a driving factor in crime and imprisonment, the allure of financial motive is only natural for a prison gang.

Characteristic differences between Comando Vermelho, Amigos dos Amigos, and Primeiro Comando da Capital have been noted in the individual analyses of each group. For example, levels of violence are high amongst all three gangs, though the ADA has shown restraint. Regardless, the evolutions of the gangs follow the same general pattern: abuse by authorities, consolidation of power in prison, extended reach on the “outside” through the drug trade, campaigns for popular support (violent or otherwise), and a struggle to overtake the state’s power. The latter activity may be sought in different ways—favela patronage systems (CV, ADA), citywide shutdowns (CV, PCC), political posturing (PCC)—but it threatens the existence of law and order in all three cases.


Image Sources:

Map of Brazil: “Maps of Brazil,” Maryland.gov, Office of the Secretary of State, http://www.sos.state.md.us/international/MDSS/RioMap.aspx.

CV Graffiti: “Compendiums: Rio, BOPE, Gangs, and Complexo do Alemao,” http://karlwinegardner.blogspot.com/2010/12/rio-bope-gangs-and-complexo-do-alemao_4856.html.

CV Video: “Comando Vermelho Gang Members,” YouTube.com, 27 February 2007, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJsM9BwgfOM.

Police Raid Alemao: “In Pictures: Brazil Forces Enter Rio Slum,” BBC News, 28 November 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-11857309.

Rocinha Images: “Rocinha,” Favela Adventures, 2009, http://favelatour.org/about/rocinha/.

PCC 2006 Riots: “In Pictures: Brazil Violence,” BBC News, 15 May 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_pictures/4771529.stm.

PCC Manifesto: Alvaro de Souza Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare: Brazil’s Fight Against Criminal Urban Guerillas,” Joint Special Operations

University Report, September 2009, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/2009/ 0909_jsou-report-09-8.pdf: 11-12.

Sao Paulo Prisoners: “Inside Latin America’s Worst Prison,” BBC News, 15 December 1998, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/234812.stm.


[1] “Firearms and Drugs Fuel Conflict in Brazil’s Favelas,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, 1 November 2005.

[2] Ben Penglase, “The Bastard Child of the Dictatorship: The Comando Vermelho and the Birth of “Narco-culture” in Rio de Janeiro,” Luso-Brazilian Review, Vol. 45, No. 1 (2008): 125.

[3] Elizabeth Leeds, “Cocaine and Parallel Polities in the Brazilian Urban Periphery: Constraints on Local-Level Democratization,” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 31, No. 3 (1996): 52-53.

[4] Penglase, “The Bastard Child,” 125.

[5] Leeds, “Cocaine and Parallel Polities,” 52-53.

[6] Leeds, “Cocaine and Parallel Polities,” 53-54.

[7] William da Silva, Quatrocentos Contra Um: Uma historia do Comando Vermelho, (Rio de Janeiro: Vozes, 1991): 78.

[8] Leeds, “Cocaine and Parallel Polities,” 53-54.

[9] Penglase, “The Bastard Child,” 126.

[10] Leeds, “Cocaine and Parallel Polities,” 54.

[11] Ibid., 55-56.

[12] Penglase, “The Bastard Child,” 128.

[13] Alvaro de Souza Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare: Brazil’s Fight Against Criminal Urban Guerillas,” Joint Special Operations University Report, September 2009, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/2009/ 0909_jsou-report-09-8.pdf: 6.

[14] Luke Dowdney, Children of the Drug Trade, (Rio de Janeiro: 7 Letras, 2003): 33.

[15] Luiz Augusto Gollo, “Vigilante Groups in Brazil Trump Drug Gangs and Become Rio’s New Authority,” Brazzil.com, 11 November 2009, http://www.brazzil.com/component/content/article/200-january-2009/10295-vigilante-groups-in-brazil-trump-drug-gangs-and-become-rios-new-authority.pdf.

[16] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 18.

[17] Penglase, “The Bastard Child,” 137.

[18] Dowdney, 44.

[19] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 17.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Rio Violence Spurs Drug Lord Transfer,” CNN, 27 February 2003, http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/americas/ 02/27/crime.brazil.reut/index.html.

[23] “Lula Vows to Defeat Crime,” BBC News, 25 March 2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/2885483.stm.

[24] Marcelo Lopes de Souza, “Social Movements in the Face of Criminal Power,” City, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2009): 31.

[25] Alba Zaluar, “Perverse Integration: Drug Trafficking and Youth in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro,” Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Spring 2000): 664.

[26] Zaluar, “Perverse Integration,” 660-661 and Dowdney, 47-49.

[27] Enrique Desmond Arias, Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, and Public Security, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006): 32.

[28] “Firearms and Drugs,” 2005.

[29] Zaluar, “Perverse Integration,” 662.

[30] Robert Neuwirth, “Rio Drug Gangs Forge a Fragile Security,” North American Congress on Latin America, Vol. 36, No. 2 (September/October 2002): 34.

[31] Penglase, “The Bastard Child,” 131.

[32] R. Ben Penglase, “The Shutdown of Rio de Janeiro: The Poetics of Drug Trafficker Violence,” Anthropology Today, Vol. 21, No. 5 (October 2005): 4.

[33] Neuwirth, “Rio Drug Gangs,” 34.

[34] Penglase, “The Shutdown of Rio de Janeiro,” 5. Arias and Dowdney also note favela residents’ tolerance of traffickers due to protection, aid, and violent threats.

[35] Dowdney, 45.

[36] Penglase, “The Shutdown of Rio de Janeiro,” 3.

[37] Benjamin Lessing, “The Danger of Dungeons: Prison Gangs and Incarcerated Militant Groups,” Small Arms Survey 2010: Gangs, Groups, and Guns, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010): 169.

[38] “Firearms and Drugs,” 2005.

[39] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 19.

[40] “Firearms and Drugs,” 2005.

[41] Bryan McCann, “Criminal Networks in Urban Brazil,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, (Summer/Fall 2007): 16.

[42] “Crime in Brazil: Maximum Insecurity,” The Economist, 19 September 2002, http://www.economist.com/node/ 1338235/print.

[43] McCann, “Criminal Networks,” 19.

[44] Ibid., 17.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid., 15.

[48] Ibid., 16.

[49] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 23-24.

[50] Ibid., 17.

[51] “Firearms and Drugs,” 2005.

[52] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 26.

[53] Ibid., 6.

[54] Lessing, 170.

[55] Stephanie Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” Council on Foreign Relations, 26 September 2006, http:// www.cfr.org/brazil/brazils-powerful-prison-gang/p11542.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Lessing, 157.

[58] Penglase, “The Shutdown of Rio de Janeiro,” 3.

[59] Penglase, “The Bastard Child,” 131.

[60] Ibid., 136.

[61] Gollo, “Vigilante Groups in Brazil,” http://www.brazzil.com/component/content/article/200-january-2009/10295-vigilante-groups-in-brazil-trump-drug-gangs-and-become-rios-new-authority.pdf.

[62] “Organized Crime in Brazil: Conquering Complexo do Alemao,” The Economist, 2 December 2010, http://www. economist.com/node/17627963.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Patrick Neate and Damian Platt, Culture is Our Weapon: Making Music and Changing Lives in Rio de Janeiro, (New York: Penguin, 2006).

[65] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 18.

[66] Gareth Chetwynd, “Deadly Setback for a Model Favela,” The Guardian, 16 April 2004, http://www.guardian. co.uk/world/2004/apr/17/brazil.garethchetwynd.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Peter J. Meyer, “Brazil-U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service, 29 July 2011, http://www.fas.org/sgp/ crs/row/RL33456.pdf: 27.

[69] Ibid.

[70] “Organized Crime in Brazil,” http://www. economist.com/node/17627963.

[71] “Time’s Up: Brazil’s Gangs,” The Economist, 28 November 2010, http://www.economist.com/blogs/ americasview/2010/11/brazils_gangs.

[72] Robin Yapp, “Rio Favela Violence: The Two Rival Factions Behind the Violence,” The Telegraph, 25 November 2010, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/brazil/8161045/Rio-favela-violence-The-two-rival-factions-behind-the-violence.html.

[73] “Rio Drug Lord Killed in Slum Shootout,” TVNZ.co.nz from Reuters, 30 October 2005, http://tvnz.co.nz/content/ 623206/4042040.xhtml.

[74] “Rio’s Most Wanted Man is Killed in Police Raid,” Los Angeles Times, from Times Wire Reports, 30 October 2005, http://articles.latimes.com/2005/oct/30/world/fg-briefs30.3.

[75] “Rio Drug Lord Killed in Slum Shootout,” http://tvnz.co.nz/content/ 623206/4042040.xhtml.

[76] Harvey Morris, “Favela Urbanisation: Aim is to Bring Slums into the Mainstream,” Financial Times, 6 May 2010, http://cachef.ft.com/cms/s/0/a2bc15b4-571c-11df-aaff-00144feab49a.html#axzz1cysKUOI9.

[77] “Brazil Police Target Drug Gangs in Rio’s Biggest Slum,” BBC News, 13 November 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-15710719.

[78] Zaluar, “Perverse Integration,” 666.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Neate and Platt, Culture is Our Weapon, 2006.

[81] Neuwirth, “Rio Drug Gangs,” 36.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Ibid.

[84] Neate and Platt, Culture is Our Weapon, 2006.

[85] Conor Foley, “Fuelling the War in Brazil,” The Guardian, 12 December 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/ commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/dec/12/brazil-prisons-crime-rio-murder.

[86] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 31.

[87] “Brazilian Police Seize 4.5 Tons of Marijuana in Rice Cargo,” BBC Monitoring Latin America, 1 May 2008, http://www.lexisnexis.com.

[88] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http:// www.cfr.org/brazil/brazils-powerful-prison-gang/p11542.

[89] Ibid.

[90] Drauzio Varella, Estação Carandiru, (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1999): 288.

[91] Josmar Jozino, Cobras e lagartos: a vida íntima e perversa nas prisões brasileiras, (Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva, 2004): 28.

[92] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 10.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Lessing, 170.

[95] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 10-12.

[96] Ibid., 11.

[97] Jozino, Cobras e lagartos: a vida íntima e perversa nas prisões brasileiras, 2004.

[98] Márcio Christino, Por Dentro do Crime: corrupção, tráfico, PCC, (São Paulo: Escrituras, 2003).

[99] James Holston, “Dangerous Spaces of Citizenship: Gang Talk, Rights Talk, and Rule of Law in Brazil,” Excerpted from Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil (Princeton University Press, 2008): 24. [http://www.princeton.edu/~piirs/projects/Democracy&Development/papers/Panel%20IV_Holston_.pdf]

[100] Ibid., 25.

[101] Lessing, 171.

[102] Ibid.

[103] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 15.

[104] Ibid., 13.

[105] Lessing, 171.

[106] Ibid.

[107] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 2.

[108] Lessing, 171-172.

[109] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 15-16.

[110] Lessing, 159.

[111] Ibid., 172.

[112] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http:// www.cfr.org/brazil/brazils-powerful-prison-gang/p11542.

[113] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 14.

[114] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http:// www.cfr.org/brazil/brazils-powerful-prison-gang/p11542.

[115] Ibid.

[116] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 10.

[117] Ibid, 14.

[118] Lessing, 171.

[119] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http:// www.cfr.org/brazil/brazils-powerful-prison-gang/p11542.

[120] Ibid.

[121] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 13.

[122] Ibid., 2.

[123] Ibid.

[124] Ibid., 13.

[125] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http:// www.cfr.org/brazil/brazils-powerful-prison-gang/p11542.

[126] Ibid.

[127] Ibid.

[128] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 10.

[129] Ibid., 13.

[130] “Brazil’s Might Prison Gangs,” BBC News, 15 May 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4770097.stm.

[131] Holston, “Dangerous Spaces,” 4.

[132] Lessing, 172.

[133] Ibid.

[134] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http:// www.cfr.org/brazil/brazils-powerful-prison-gang/p11542.

[135] Ibid.

[136] McCann, “Criminal Networks,” 16.

[137] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 2.

[138] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http:// www.cfr.org/brazil/brazils-powerful-prison-gang/p11542.

[139] Ibid.

[140] Larry Rohter, “Brazil is Getting a New Political Party: Its Base is in State Prison,” The New York Times, 9 September 2001, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/09/world/brazil-is-getting-a-new-political-party-its-base-is-in-state-prison.html.

[141] Ibid.

[142] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 15.

[143] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http:// www.cfr.org/brazil/brazils-powerful-prison-gang/p11542.

[144] Greg Michener, “In Brazil, Get Out of Jail Sooner by Hitting the Books,” The Christian Science Monitor, 13 June 2011, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/Latin-America-Monitor/2011/0613/In-Brazil-get-out-of-jail-sooner-by-hitting-the-books.

[145] Becky Branford, “Brazil’s ‘Medieval’ Prisons,” BBC News, 2 June 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3768145.stm.

[146] Michener, “In Brazil, Get Out of Jail Sooner,” http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/Latin-America-Monitor/2011/0613/In-Brazil-get-out-of-jail-sooner-by-hitting-the-books.

[147] Branford, “Brazil’s ‘Medieval’ Prisons,” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3768145.stm.

[148] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http:// www.cfr.org/brazil/brazils-powerful-prison-gang/p11542.

[149] Ibid.

[150] Branford, “Brazil’s ‘Medieval’ Prisons,” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3768145.stm.


Why Prison Gangs?

Prison gangs are violent non-state actors (VNSAs) engaged in a host of criminal activities directly threatening to the security and stability of countries throughout the Western Hemisphere.  Their activities run the gamut from exceptional brutality to drug smuggling and human trafficking.  The existence of powerful gangs within government prison systems, the ultimate expressions of state authority and the primacy of the rule of law, is paradoxical.  Yet not only do prison gangs exist, they thrive in confinement.  Contemporary prisons often form the epicenter of criminal activities and serve as institutions of higher learning for criminals, where ordinary and minor offenders join organized criminal groups and transform into hardened gang members and career criminals.

The growing significance of prison gangs has yet to be fully recognized among security experts.  The analysis presented here aims to reduce the ongoing disparity between the increasingly importance of prison gangs in national and transnational criminal activity and the comparative lack of expert knowledge.

The problems of street gangs and prison gangs are increasingly inextricable.  Gangs outside prison , motivated by some combination of money and fear, often carry out the dictates of powerful prison gangs and incarcerated gang leaders.  Street gangs often occupy subordinate positions in their relations with prison gangs: inevitable incarceration puts street gang members at the mercy of violent and well-entrenched prison gangs, placing a premium on good relations with the latter.  The growing reach of prison gangs parallels the broader transformation of such groups into powerful, for-profit organized criminal entities, many of whom pose increasingly transnational threats. They are the enemy within, a threat that no one suspects until it is too late and must be recognized as such.


The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines prison gangs as:

“criminal organizations that originated within the penal system and operate within correctional facilities…although released members may be operating on the street. Prison gangs are also self-perpetuating criminal entities that can continue their criminal operations outside the confines of the penal system.”

In the United States, prison gangs are classified as Security Threat Groups (STGs).  According to the National Gang Crime Research Center (NGCRC), an STG is any group of three or more persons with recurring threatening or disruptive behavior which includes, but is not limited to, gang crime and gang violence.  The moniker of “security threat group” is intended to take away the recognition and publicity that the term “gang” connotes when referring to people who seek to undermine the system.

For the purposes of this project, the NGCRC’s definition of prison gangs will be used:

any gang (where a gang is a group of three or more persons who recurrently commit crime, and where the crime is openly known to the group) that operates in prison.

This definition is consistent with the reality that not all prison gangs originated behind prison walls.  The 2010 Small Arms Survey distinguishes between “natives” or “pure” prison gangs formed within and those “imported” into prison systems, the members of which function as “prison branches” of an organization that already established on the outside, such as MS-13 and M-18.  In practice, however, the distinction between a “native” gang and an “imported” one is often inconsequential.  The gangs observed in this analysis all utilize prisons as bases for their criminal activities and all share the same goal of undermining the laws of society.


Image of Man in Prison: http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=3481.

Image of Western Hemisphere: http://www.enterasys.com/services-training/maintenance-support.aspx.