Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, has seen some important security advances in recent years, taking dozens of communities in Rio de Janeiro from criminal gangs through its innovative UPP security program. However, it faces a serious threat from its two largest domestic criminal gangs, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando Capital – PCC) and Red Command (Comando Vermelho), who are becoming increasingly involved in the international drug trade, as well as operating extortion and kidnapping rings at home. Militia groups composed mostly of police are another source of violent crime, extorting entire neighborhoods and carrying out extrajudicial killings. The country is also becoming increasingly important as a market and transit point for cocaine.
Brazil is the largest country in South America. It has a 16,000-kilometer land border and an 8,000-kilometer coastline, whose busy ports are used to ship cocaine to Europe, Asia and Africa.
Except for Chile and Ecuador, Brazil shares a border with every country in South America, including the world’s three biggest cocaine producers: Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. Neighboring Paraguay serves as a hideout for Brazilian criminals, and as a source and transit point for marijuana and weapons trafficked into Brazil.
Brazil saw a massive exodus of rural dwellers towards the main urban centers of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro from the 1950s to 1970s, which led to the growth of informal settlements known as “favelas.” The inequality and poverty of the country as a whole was intensified in favelas, which lacked state presence, making them ideal breeding grounds for an explosion of organized crime.
In the 1950s, a powerful criminal mafia began to form around the “bicho,” or the animal game, an illegal gambling racket that became hugely popular in the country. The bosses who ran the game built up large fortunes, laundering their profits through legitimate companies. Eventually, they branched out into contract killing and prostitution rings, buying off police and politicians. The power of the bicheiros, or animal game bosses, would peak in the 1980s, when they began laundering money through Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival.
Meanwhile organized criminal groups were also developing in the brutal squalor of the country’s prisons. Indeed, Brazil’s organized criminal groups got their start in the prisons and only later grew to conquer the streets. The country’s biggest gangs, the Red Command and First Capital Command (PCC), both began in the prisons, in the early 1970s and the 1990s respectively, before spreading out onto the streets of Rio and São Paulo.
During the 1970s, with the entrance of large quantities of cocaine into Brazil, links began to emerge among the bicheiros, drug cartels and local traffickers. As the global cocaine market boomed in the 1980s, Brazil attracted the biggest South American drug producers as a transit point for drugs bound for the European and US markets. Colombian cartels moved into Brazilian territory, attracted by its location and the availability of precursor chemicals, smuggling cocaine into the country in base form. They began to install laboratories close to the points of sale and disembarkation to European and US markets.
Vigilante groups made up of current and former members of the police, known as militias, have emerged in cities under the premise of fighting drug gangs. However, they have moved into operating their own criminal rackets, including extortion and kidnapping schemes.
The national homicide rate has remained relatively steady, going from 22 per 100,000 in 2004, to 25.7 in 2016. While parts of southern Brazil, including its largest city São Paulo, have seen generally improving security conditions in recent years, violence and crime in the country’s violent northeast is rising fast.
Brazil has also been the epicenter of a major international corruption case that began to unfold in 2014 and became known as the “Car Wash” (“Lava Jato”) scandal. The ongoing investigations exposed systemic graft among Brazil’s political and economic elites, implicating dozens of business executives and top officials, including five ex-presidents and President Michel Temer, who in 2017 became the first sitting head of state to be criminally charged while in office.
The scandal has also had international ramifications, particularly after one of the country’s biggest companies, the construction giant Odebrecht, admitted in December 2016 to using a “Department of Bribery” to carry out a “massive and unparalleled” bribe scheme, paying hundreds of millions of dollars to improperly obtain public works contracts in a dozen countries, most of them in Latin America.
The two most established groups in Brazilian organized crime are the Red Command and the First Capital Command (PCC), both of which grew out of the Brazilian prison system. The Red Command is largely based in Rio de Janeiro, while the PCC originated in São Paulo. Both have expanded their influence across the country and even into neighboring countries such as Paraguay and Bolivia and are involved in crimes ranging from drug trafficking and sales to extortion and robberies. The two groups maintained a longstanding truce until late 2016, when a gang war broke out apparently linked to conflict over the drug trade.
In addition, there are several splinter groups, such as the Amgios dos Amigos and Pure Third Command (Terceiro Comando Puro – TCP) as well as localized networks such as the First Catarinense Group (Primeiro Grupo da Catarinense – PGC) in the south and the Family of the North (Família do Norte – FDN) in the north. Further complicating the underworld dynamic are police militias, groups set up by former and current police officers that have crossed the line from vigilantism to criminal activity.
Brazil’s police are divided into federal (around 15,000 members) and state, which includes military (over 400,000 active members), and civil (some 120,000 members) forces. The Federal Police are responsible for investigating international drug trafficking, among other federal crimes. The Military Police are responsible for enforcing public order in the states, and have taken a leading role in the “pacification” of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, though the long-term success of this initiative has been limited. The Civil Police handle criminal investigations at the state level. Brazil’s police have long faced accusations of abuse and corruption, especially in connection to extrajudicial killings.
Brazil has 339,300 active members in its armed forces, which are the largest in Latin America. The military’s primary role is enforcing border control. However, amid rising perceptions of insecurity around the country, the armed forces have increasingly been called upon to play a role in supporting civil police, raising concerns about potential human rights abuses and the general efficacy of the strategy.
Brazil’s judicial system is slow, corrupt and generally ineffective. In the World Economic Forum’s 2015-2016 Global Competitiveness Report, Brazil placed 92 out of 140 countries on judicial independence. A relatively small percentage of murders in Brazil are successfully prosecuted. There are both federal and state courts, as well as courts specialized in military, labor or electoral matters. The country’s highest court is the Supreme Federal Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal).
Brazil’s prisons are overcrowded, with inmates kept in terrible conditions. Extreme violence is disturbingly commonplace, and is often linked to gang conflict. The largest criminal groups, including the Red Command and the PCC, were founded in the prisons. Their leaders are able to run drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion schemes from behind bars. The prisons operate at about 163 percent of capacity with a population of 644,000 as of 2016.