Last weekend, Brazilians living in the greater Sao Paulo metropolitan area witnessed one of the country’s largest prison riots in the past five years, organized and orchestrated by Sao Paulo’s largest criminal faction, the First Capital Command (PCC in Portuguese).

When Sao Paulo state authorities transferred some 756 PCC leaders, the PCC criminal enterprise, led by Willians Herbas Camacho (a.k.a. Marcola), implemented its plan to start riots in dozens of prisons in Sao Paulo and around the country. They took advantage of the unusually lax security environment over the weekend when some 10,000 prisoners were given a day pass to visit families on the outside for Mother’s Day, and thousands more civilians entered prisons to visit inmates on the inside.

As one prison after another fell under the control of rioting inmates, the hostage count rocketed into the hundreds. Meanwhile, organized attacks on police stations around Sao Paulo kept security forces busy defending themselves. At the same time, masked gunmen commandeered city buses, ordering them evacuated before burning them to the ground.

The weekend’s total included over 250 separate attacks on police stations, stores, and other establishments. There were 115 people killed, including 32 policemen and prison guards and 71 gang members. Another 49 people were injured. Some 215 hostages were taken in 73 prison riots that occurred in prisons across Sao Paulo, Parana, Matto Grosso do Sul, Brasilia, and Bahia, according to Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo. Over 80 public transport buses were burned and one metro station was attacked, leaving over five million people without public transport. On 15 May, as millions of people fled home in the early afternoon, Sao Paulo became a city of gridlock spanning 203 kilometers of roadways.

Over the weekend, as the violence raged on, Brazilian Justice Minister Marcio Thomas Bastos offered the service of 4,000 soldiers, part of a National Force trained to help contain the security problems in Brazilian states. But Sao Paulo Governor Claudio Lembo, filling in for presidential candidate Geraldo Alckmin, refused to accept federal help. Bastos made the trip from Brasilia to Sao Paulo to again offer federal assistance during a close-door meeting on Monday, 15 May. But again it was refused.

By 16 May, as quickly as the violence had started, it ended, and most prisons were back in the control of state authorities, and policemen were no longer the target of random attacks. The Sao Paulo daily newspaper, O Estado de Sao Paulo, reported on 16 May that the state government had reached an agreement with the PCC. Government officials continue to deny that claim, but it is possible such negotiations were a last-resort option for state officials clearly caught off guard by a highly organized criminal network, one many believed had been dismantled years ago.

Brazilian organized crime

The PCC began to take shape in 1993, when prisoners incarcerated in Taubate state prison in Sao Paulo organized themselves to fight against deplorable living conditions and more rights within the prison system. Over the past 13 years, this organization has grown into one of the country’s most powerful prison criminal networks, controlling activity within dozens of prisons in Sao Paulo and around the country, as well as important sales points and transport routes for drugs and guns flowing into Brazil from source countries such as Paraguay, Bolivia, Colombia, and Suriname.

The PCC became more active outside prisons in 1999, when Rio’s top criminal organization – the Red Command (CV in Portuguese) – formed an alliance with PCC members who lived in Heliopolis, a shantytown located in the southeastern zone of Sao Paulo, according to a Rio de Janeiro Federal Police officer who asked to remain anonymous. Through this alliance, the CV sought to shift some of its drug trafficking activities from Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo. In Rio, CV leaders had been constantly harassed by police who exacted an extortion tax for allowing favelas (shantytowns) to be used as drug sales centers and contraband transshipment points. Additionally, the PCC in 1999 was a large criminal organization with more manpower than economic activity. Its alliance with the CV increased earnings for the PCC in Sao Paulo, while opening a new pool of man power for the CV to defend its turf from rival gangs in Rio de Janeiro.

Together, the two gangs control the drug trade in Brazil’s two largest cities. They operate gun smuggling routes out of Paraguay and purchase weapons from corrupt policemen and military soldiers in Sao Paulo and Rio. High-level members of these gangs, especially the CV, continue to conduct a weapons-for-cocaine barter with members of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) based in the Colombian Amazon.

As recently as 30 April, three Colombians opened fire on a Brazilian patrol on the Rio Negro, a branch of the Amazon river that begins in an area of the Colombian Amazon reportedly controlled by the FARC. Brazilian authorities claim that the rifles were stamped with the Brazilian military coat of arms. The men were followed to the Colombian city of San Felipe, where their arms were confiscated. Brazilian Federal Police investigators told ISN Security Watch that they believe the arms were part of a cache of weapons to be traded for cocaine that traffickers would transport to Sao Paulo and Rio.

Red Command leader Fernandinho Beira-Mar is considered to have been one of the first Brazilian criminals to trade weapons for cocaine with the FARC. He was arrested by Colombian authorities in April 2001 and immediately extradited to Brazil. Yet the recent incident on the Brazilian-Colombian border in the Amazon indicates that five years later, this criminal exchange program still continues to supply the CV and the PCC with pure, Colombian cocaine.

Brazilian organized crime is just as powerful within the prison system as it is on the outside. And as the battle continues to dismantle these criminal networks, the occasional mega-rebellion reminds Brazilian authorities and civilians that the security sector here has a long way to go before it has any significant control over organized crime. These rebellions also highlight the superior communication networks operated by Brazilian organized crime.

Communication is fundamental

When Fernandinho Beira-Mar was transferred from his prison cell in Rio de Janeiro after he orchestrated a prison riot there in September 2002 to mask the assassination of rival gang leaders, authorities found a number of luxury items including silk pajamas. But what surprised them more was the number of abandoned cell phones. Reports from Rio de Janeiro daily, O Globo, claim that Beira-Mar used up to a dozen cell phones to communicate with lieutenants and other subordinates in his black market network of guns and drugs shipments and sales.

In a similar fashion, leaders of the PCC use cell phones to communicate with one another between prisons and between prisoners and gang members on the outside. Both the Civil Police and the Federal Police operate listening posts, which enable security officials to piece together actionable intelligence on plans for rebellions and other gang operations. However, the use of two-way radios has made that task much more difficult.

In both Rio and Sao Paulo, two-way radios are used by criminals to relay messages to other incarcerated gang members and members on the outside. In some cases, one prisoner calls via cell a subordinate 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, reports O Globo. Each node on the communications chain may use any number of cell phones or two-way radios, making tracking the signals very difficult.

Attempts to block cell phone signals in Rio and Sao Paulo have been ineffective.

In the middle of the Mother’s Day weekend riots, requests to shut down cell phone towers used by criminals to relay signals were presented to Brazil’s telecommunications regulatory body when Marco Antonio Desgualdo, the head of the Sao Paulo state Civil Police, met with this body, called Anatel, on 15 May. The Folha de Sao Paulo reported that after the meeting Desgualdo announced that authorities would not be able to shut down cell towers without the acquiescence of telecommunications companies.

These same companies – Vivo, Tim, Telefonica, Embratel, and Nextel – complain that shutting down the towers would mean an unacceptable disruption of service for their law-abiding clients. Nothing short of a court order would shut down the towers, a legal instrument that takes too long to obtain.

In some prison systems, cell phone signal blockers are used, but they are quickly rendered obsolete by the rapid pace of technological advancement in cell phone systems.

The battle between Sao Paulo authorities and the cell phone companies to shut down towers in the event of security needs began in February 2001, when PCC members used cell phones to orchestrate simultaneous riots in 29 prisons across Sao Paulo. Security officials failed to win the battle then, too, but no one knew that such decisions five years ago would eventually facilitate the most violent uprising of Brazilian organized crime in years.

Corruption and politics

Even as blocking cell signals and other methods to impede communication between criminals evolves into what may become a viable solution, many believe that such time is wasted on treating a problem that is not central to the real reason why the PCC was able to orchestrate such a widespread reign of disorder and rebellion. Corruption and politics, two of the usual suspects behind systemic dysfunction in democracies, are at the center of Brazil’s security problems.

Bribes paid to security officials at all levels keep leaders of the PCC and the CV well informed of official planning. When authorities planned to move over 700 of the PCC leaders to a more secure prison environment to avoid what they learned was a planned Mother’s Day rebellion, the PCC reacted by launching its rebellion two days early, disrupting the prisoner transport and a host of other activities planned to prevent the rebellion.

Low salaries exacerbate corruption because policemen and some lower-ranking members of the military are more likely to sell weapons from poorly organized stock piles to make ends meet. Over 70 per cent of the weapons used by Brazilian organized crime were made in Brazil. Many of them are sold to Paraguay where they enter the black market before returning to Brazil. Yet a significant amount are sold to criminals directly from stockpiles of seized weapons.

When budgets must be prepared, politics dictate who gets what slice of the pie. From 2004 to 2005, the Brazilian federal government reduced resources for the country’s Penitentiary Fund by 37 per cent. This fund oversees the overall improvement and maintenance of Brazil’s prison system. Meanwhile, the government of Sao Paulo state diverted from public security spending some US$81.3 million in the last five years. It was a decision in the reduction of security spending at the Sao Paulo state level that was likely made after the 2001 prison riots in that state.

Commenting on the event, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva said it was a demonstration of the power of organized crime in Brazil. His comments underline the fact that Brazilian organized crime is a force that has grown to threaten Brazilian cities as well as the nation. With links to organized crime in Paraguay and Suriname, and a thriving barter system with Colombia’s FARC soldiers, the PCC and CV may soon become internationally known as a criminal network that has grown too big for Brazil’s security system to handle.

(ISN Security Watch (18/5/06))