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,”, Office of the Secretary of State,

CV Graffiti: “Compendiums: Rio, BOPE, Gangs, and Complexo do Alemao,”

CV Video: “Comando Vermelho Gang Members,”, 27 February 2007,

Police Raid Alemao: “In Pictures: Brazil Forces Enter Rio Slum,” BBC News, 28 November 2010,

Rocinha Images: “Rocinha,” Favela Adventures, 2009,

PCC 2006 Riots: “In Pictures: Brazil Violence,” BBC News, 15 May 2006,

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

University Report, September 2009, 0909_jsou-report-09-8.pdf: 11-12.

Sao Paulo Prisoners: “Inside Latin America’s Worst Prison,” BBC News, 15 December 1998,


[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, 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,”, 11 November 2009,

[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, 02/27/crime.brazil.reut/index.html.

[23] “Lula Vows to Defeat Crime,” BBC News, 25 March 2003,

[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, 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://

[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,”

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

[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,

[67] Ibid.

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

[69] Ibid.

[70] “Organized Crime in Brazil,” http://www.

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

[72] Robin Yapp, “Rio Favela Violence: The Two Rival Factions Behind the Violence,” The Telegraph, 25 November 2010,

[73] “Rio Drug Lord Killed in Slum Shootout,” from Reuters, 30 October 2005, 623206/4042040.xhtml.

[74] “Rio’s Most Wanted Man is Killed in Police Raid,” Los Angeles Times, from Times Wire Reports, 30 October 2005,

[75] “Rio Drug Lord Killed in Slum Shootout,” 623206/4042040.xhtml.

[76] Harvey Morris, “Favela Urbanisation: Aim is to Bring Slums into the Mainstream,” Financial Times, 6 May 2010,

[77] “Brazil Police Target Drug Gangs in Rio’s Biggest Slum,” BBC News, 13 November 2011,

[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, 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,

[88] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[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. []

[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://

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

[114] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[115] Ibid.

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

[117] Ibid, 14.

[118] Lessing, 171.

[119] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[120] Ibid.

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

[122] Ibid., 2.

[123] Ibid.

[124] Ibid., 13.

[125] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[126] Ibid.

[127] Ibid.

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

[129] Ibid., 13.

[130] “Brazil’s Might Prison Gangs,” BBC News, 15 May 2006,

[131] Holston, “Dangerous Spaces,” 4.

[132] Lessing, 172.

[133] Ibid.

[134] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[135] Ibid.

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

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

[138] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[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,

[141] Ibid.

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

[143] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[144] Greg Michener, “In Brazil, Get Out of Jail Sooner by Hitting the Books,” The Christian Science Monitor, 13 June 2011,

[145] Becky Branford, “Brazil’s ‘Medieval’ Prisons,” BBC News, 2 June 2004,

[146] Michener, “In Brazil, Get Out of Jail Sooner,”

[147] Branford, “Brazil’s ‘Medieval’ Prisons,”

[148] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[149] Ibid.

[150] Branford, “Brazil’s ‘Medieval’ Prisons,”