Inmates and hostage on roof of Cascavel prison

A deadly riot in southern Brazil illustrates how inhumane prison conditions and powerful prison gangs create an explosive situation, which authorities are sometimes tempted to resolve by negotiating with gangs like the First Capital Command (PCC).

A recent prison riot in Brazil's Parana state left five prisoners dead -- two by beheading -- 25 wounded and Cascavel prison in shambles. (Of seven inmates initially reported missing, six turned out to have been long since transferred to other prisons.) After a tense 45-hour standoff, officials finally met inmates' demands to address overcrowding by promising to transfer some 800 of the prison's 1,040 inmates to other facilities. Just to be certain, prisoners continued to hold two guards hostage (of only nine on duty at the time of the riot) until the transfers were completed.

The incident follows numerous recent cases of prison-related violence throughout Brazil, all of which bore the fingerprints of the country's most powerful criminal organization, the First Capital Command (PCC). While Cascavel prison appears not to have been entirely dominated by the PCC, as are the vast majority of Sao Paulo prisons, the organization clearly had a strong presence: its name was found painted on the prison walls and on banners hung by rioting inmates during the standoff. Indeed, the brutal murders of five prisoners are thought to have been score-settling, possibly ordered by local PCC leaders. Equally telling, and particularly worrisome, was the use of a classic PCC tactic, simultaneous attacks beyond the prison walls: while the riot flared at the prison itself, affiliates burned a bus and a car belonging to the city government right in front of city hall, and spray-painted "PCC" nearby for good measure. 

SEE ALSO: PCC Profile

Instances of prisoner abuse and neglect have driven similar episodes of violence in far-flung corners of Brazil, and in each case, PCC franchises or affiliates have been involved. Authorities, journalists and scholars are beginning to connect the dots: execrable prison conditions and prison gangs are an explosive mixture.

Why is that? Criminal networks like the PCC are far more sophisticated than the name "prison gang" suggests. They are not so much a rapacious band of thugs as a kind of inmate shadow government, enforcing codes of conduct that bring order to prison life and make most inmates better off. The allegiance this inspires then helps gang leaders orchestrate collective resistance to guard abuse and official neglect.

The threat to state authority posed by prison gangs lies partly in their ability to project power beyond the prison walls, controlling street-level violence in ways that force officials' hands. The PCC in particular has perfected the art of synchronized attacks, like the citywide shutdown of Sao Paulo in 2006, of which the bus-burning in Cascavel was a small but potent reminder. These tactics amplify prisoners' leverage over state officials. As a Parana state official put it, "our best option was to negotiate."

Inhumane prison conditions, however, also play a key role in empowering prison gangs. Gross neglect and abuse foments mistrust, desperation, and rage among the larger inmate population, which sophisticated prison gangs can channel into organized revolt. More importantly, mistreatment of prisoners hands prison gangs perfectly legitimate motives for such revolt, if not for their violent means. This allows politically savvy groups like the PCC to present themselves -- cynically but not totally inaccurately -- as human rights defenders, and can potentially undermine the state's own legitimacy.

States generally regard negotiation with criminal groups as taboo -- far more so than negotiation with insurgents and other overtly political groups. Yet as the line blurs between criminal coercion and legitimate protest, negotiation comes to seem more acceptable. Add to this prison gangs' proven ability to reduce street-level violence and it is understandable how officials in Brazil, as well as El Salvador, have sought to craft deals with imprisoned gang leaders.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador's Gang Truce: Positives and Negatives

These deals have saved lives and pacified urban war zones, but they also strengthen prison gangs and set precedents that could encourage similar groups -- there is a taboo for a reason, after all. In the short run, the official in Parana is probably right: negotiation is the best option. Over time, though, without a fundamental shift away from the mass incarceration policies that fuel prison gangs' growth and propagation, states may find themselves ceding ever more ground to increasingly powerful -- and increasingly political -- prison-based criminal networks.

*Benjamin Lessing is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

While there is no doubt that the FARC have only a tenuous control over some of their more remote fronts, there is no evidence of any overt dissident faction within the movement at the moment.

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

If we are to believe the Colombian government, the question is not if, but rather when, an end to 50 years of civil conflict will be reached. Yet the promise of President Juan Manuel Santos that peace can be achieved before the end of 2014 is simply...

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC have always had a love-hate relationship with drugs. They love the money it brings, funds which have allowed them to survive and even threaten to topple the state at the end of the 1990s. They hate the corruption and stigma narcotics have also brought to...

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

In August 2002, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) greeted Colombia's new president with a mortar attack that killed 14 people during his inauguration. The attack was intended as a warning to the fiercely anti-FARC newcomer. But it became the opening salvo of...

Barrio 18 Leader 'Viejo Lin' on El Salvador Gang Truce

Barrio 18 Leader 'Viejo Lin' on El Salvador Gang Truce

Barrio 18 leader Carlos Lechuga Mojica, alias "El Viejo Lin," is one of the most prominent spokesmen for El Salvador's gang truce. InSight Crime co-director Steven Dudley spoke with Mojica in Cojutepeque prison in October 2012 about how the maras view the controversial peace process, which has...

The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine

The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine

On May 27, 1964 up to one thousand Colombian soldiers, backed by fighter planes and helicopters, launched an assault against less than fifty guerrillas in the tiny community of Marquetalia. The aim of the operation was to stamp out once and for all the communist threat in...

Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

When considering the possibilities that the FARC may break apart, the Ivan Rios Bloc is a helpful case study because it is perhaps the weakest of the FARC's divisions in terms of command and control, and therefore runs the highest risk of fragmentation and criminalization.

El Salvador's Gang Truce: Positives and Negatives

El Salvador's Gang Truce: Positives and Negatives

The truce between El Salvador's two largest gangs -- the MS-13 and Barrio 18 -- opens up new possibilities in how to deal with the seemingly intractable issue of street gangs. But it also creates new dangers.

A Look Inside El Salvador's Prison Nightmare (Video)

A Look Inside El Salvador's Prison Nightmare (Video)

El Salvador's Cojutepeque jail is a perfect illustration of how prisons in this country have become the main breeding and training grounds for street gangs.

MS-13's 'El Barney': A Trend or an Isolated Case?

MS-13's 'El Barney': A Trend or an Isolated Case?

In October 2012, the US Treasury Department designated the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) as a transnational criminal organization (TCO). While this assertion seems unfounded, there is one case that illustrates just why the US government is worried about the future.