Brazilian police intelligence confirms that the PCC prison gang is expanding across the country from its São Paulo base, with members in two-thirds of the country's states, raising the question of whether its war with the police could spread further afield.
According to a police intelligence report cited by O Globo, the Brazilian prison gang known as the First Capital Command (PCC) is expanding across the country. The report, which was released by the National Public Security Secretariat (SENASP), reveals that the gang saw surges in its membership from January to September 2011, and now has a presence in 21 of Brazil's 27 states.
Some of the strongest expansion is in states close to São Paulo, which -- with 135 of its 152 prisons effectively under PCC control -- is the group's stronghold. The states of Mato Grosso do Sul, Parana and Minas Gerais, which border on São Paulo, saw sharp increases in gang membership in 2011.
In addition to increasing membership, SENASP reported on the large amount of resources at the disposal of the PCC, which makes some $32 million annually from drug trafficking alone.
The PCC is believed to have a direct role in smuggling drugs across the border from Bolivia (where cocaine production is on the rise) and Paraguay (an important cocaine transit nation). Bolivian counternarcotics officials consulted by La Razon confirmed that the PCC is one of several Brazilian gangs involved in drug trafficking along the countries' shared border, and claimed that the group controls smuggling routes leading from the Brazilian border states of Rondonia, Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul down to São Paulo.
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The news comes at a time when officials have expressed concern about the group's spread throughout the country, especially in northeast Brazil. It also coincides with a wave of violence in São Paulo, which many analysts believe was triggered by an unofficial declaration of war by the group against police officers in the state. At least 95 police officers have been killed in São Paulo so far this year, compared to 47 in the whole of 2011.
The nature of the security threat posed by the PCC's expansion will depend on the strength of its central leadership. On one hand, the PCC has a reputation for being highly organized. New recruits swear a 16-point manifesto advocating social and political change in Brazil, and members routinely pay dues (estimated to be between $25 and $225 a month), which are used to support the families and pay legal fees of their imprisoned comrades.
Its leaders, especially imprisoned PCC founder Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, alias "Marcola," have demonstrated their capacity to direct coordinated gang violence from their jail cells. The last round of serious PCC attacks against police occurred in May 2006, when the gang nearly shut down the city of São Paulo for two weeks in response to their leaders being relocated to a facility outside the city. The PCC's violent campaign only came to an end after Marcola and other gang leaders allegedly agreed a truce with the state government in exchange for improved prison conditions. While the government has denied any such negotiations, it is believed that the recent outbreak of violence occurred because the gang perceived the authorities to have violated the terms of the 2006 truce. In early November, the government of São Paulo transferred imprisoned PCC leaders to federal prisons, in an effort to cut communications between the bosses and their lieutenants on the streets.
On the other hand, there is reason to doubt the strength of the gang's command structure outside São Paulo. So far the PCC's campaign against police does not appear to have expanded beyond the state, despite concerns over similar violence in the southern state of Santa Catarina. This is an indication that, like most street gangs, PCC cells are predominantly loose and semi-autonomous cells, more concerned with controlling the flow of local drug and arms trafficking routes than any national strategy.
This could change in the future, however, if the government strikes a deal with PCC leaders similar to the one that ended the 2006 violence. Now that the group has a stronger nationwide presence, mid-level PCC commanders elsewhere are no doubt watching to see what their leaders in São Paulo can accomplish by negotiating with authorities. If they succeed, it could even encourage similar waves of violence throughout the country. Marcola himself hinted to this strategy in 2006, telling an interviewer: "You are the ones who are afraid to die; I am not. Here in prison you cannot come and kill me, but I can arrange for you to be killed out there. We are a new species."