The First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) was inspired by the Red Command (Comando Vermelho). Both criminal organizations were formed by prisoners as self-protection groups in Brazil’s brutal prison system. The PCC arose in São Paulo in the 1990s and has forged a bloody path to dominance throughout the country. The group, now the largest and best-organized criminal organization in Brazil, is believed to have members in all of the country’s states, and has expanded its operations internationally to neighboring South American nations in addition to Europe and Asia.
The PCC formed in the wake of the October 1992 massacre in São Paulo’s Carandiru prison, in which Brazilian security forces killed over 100 prisoners following a riot. In August 1993, a group of eight prisoners who had been transferred to Taubaté prison formed the PCC to fight for justice for the massacre and to push for better prison conditions. They expressed solidarity with another prison-based gang, the Red Command, adopting its slogan “peace, justice, freedom,” and advocated for revolution and the destruction of the capitalist system.
The PCC’s existence was first publicly reported by journalist Fatima Souza in 1997, although the São Paulo government continued to deny that there was any such group.
In 1999 the group carried out the biggest bank heist in São Paulo’s history, stealing some $32 million.
In subsequent years, the government moved to split up the PCC’s leaders, transferring them to prisons across the country. However, this allowed the gang to forge stronger links with other crime groups and to spread its ideas more widely.
It had become impossible to deny the PCC’s existence by 2001, when it coordinated the biggest prison rebellion the world had ever seen, with simultaneous shutdowns in 29 facilities across São Paulo state.
In 2006, the PCC launched an even more significant rebellion in protest after the transfer of members to remote facilities. Imprisoned members took over more than 70 prisons across the country, holding visitors hostage. Simultaneously, the group launched coordinated attacks on the outside focused on São Paulo that left more than 150 dead.
Over the next decade, the PCC grew in strength and sophistication, aided by a virtually unimpeded ability to conduct business in Brazil’s under-resourced prisons as well as a reported truce with the São Paulo police. In the early 2010s, the group began branching out to establish drug and arms trafficking operations in neighboring countries like Bolivia and Paraguay.
In late 2012, São Paulo’s public security secretary was forced to resign after a spate of violent clashes between police and the PCC, reportedly in response to authorities ramping up actions against the gang in violation of the spirit of the truce.
During the early 2010s, the PCC also made attempts to influence politics in its home state of São Paulo. And with increasing recruitment and revenues, the gang began to emerge as the most powerful criminal organization in Brazil.
Boasting more than 11,000 members across much of Brazil, and with multimillion-dollar monthly revenues, the PCC expanded its criminal portfolio to include large-scale international drug trafficking operations. The group developed ties with the powerful Italian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, and began laundering money in foreign countries like China.
In the latter half of the decade, the PCC grew bolder in its use of violence. The group was blamed for a series of armed robberies in Paraguay in 2015. And in early 2016, a video surfaced on the internet depicting the decapitation of a teenager, reportedly linked to a dispute between the PCC and its erstwhile ally, the First Catarinense Group (Primeiro Grupo da Catarinense – PGC).
In late 2016, the PCC broke a longstanding truce with the Red Command, setting off months of bloody prison riots that led to hundreds of deaths. Authorities linked the violence to clashes between the two groups over control of lucrative drug trafficking routes running through the remote northern Amazon region of Brazil. Reports also suggested that the PCC was seeking to challenge the Red Command in its home city of Rio de Janeiro, and that the PCC was fending off challenges from a rival group in São Paulo state, contributing to a spike in violence there.
In 2017, the PCC appeared to move into expansion mode. The group was linked to international drug shipments traveling through Uruguay, kidnappings and robberies in Bolivia, and attempts to recruit dissident members of the demobilizing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
The PCC was also blamed for a spate of murders reportedly linked to conflict over the drug trade in Paraguay. And in April 2017, the gang reportedly carried out the biggest armed robbery in Paraguay’s history.
The fallout from the breakdown of the PCC-Red Command truce continued to generate violence in early 2018, with the PCC seemingly undeterred in its ongoing campaign of domestic and international expansion.
The PCC organizes itself with strong independent local leadership working through a franchise system instead of being dependant on a vertical hierarchy. However, dues are collected from members of the organization and are used to pay lawyers, buy off prison guards and police, and to purchase drugs and weapons. This decentralized command structure has made it difficult for law enforcement to confront the organization.
Two founding members of the PCC, Jose Marcio Felicio, alias “Geleião,” and César Augusto Roriz da Silva, alias “Cesinha,” were expelled from the organization in 2002, and founded a rival organization, the Third Capital Command (Terceiro Comando da Capital — TCC).
According to the Brazilian police, Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, alias “Marcola,” serves as the group’s maximum leader, operating from prison where he is serving a two-decade drug trafficking sentence. The group’s second-in-command, Abel Pacheco, alias “Vida Loka,” is in jail while facing trial for murder charges.
The PCC lost several top leaders in late 2017 and early 2018. High-ranking PCC leader Edison Borges Nogueira, alias “Birosca,” was killed in a São Paulo prison in December 2017, after being expelled from the group earlier in the year as a result of a fight between his wife and other prisoners’ family members on a bus. Rogério Jeremias de Simone, alias “Gegê do Mangue,” allegedly the PCC’s third-in-command, and Fabiano Alves de Souza, alias “Paca,” another top leader, were killed in February 2018 in a suspected clash with a rival group.
The PCC is based in São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous and economically important state, though it maintains a presence around the country. In recent years, the PCC has expanded its activities internationally, developing operations in nearly every country in South America in addition to establishing ties with European crime groups. Paraguay has also become an important stronghold for the Brazilian organization.
Allies and Enemies
A 20-year truce between the PCC and Brazil’s other dominant criminal organization, the Red Command, broke down in late 2016, resulting in a rapid grab for territory and allies by both sides.
To shore up support in the northern territories, which are home to important drug trafficking routes, the PCC allied with a local crime group known as the Guardians of the State (Guardiões do Estado – GDE). The alliance between the PCC and the GDE appears to be an effort counterbalance the support that the Red Command receives from Family of the North (Família do Norte – FDN), a criminal organization operating in northern Brazil that was responsible for the murder of 56 PCC members during prison riots in early 2017.
In late 2016, the PCC provided material support to the Friend of Friends (Amigo dos Amigos – ADA) in their developing war against the Red Command in Rio de Janeiro. Reports also suggest the PCC may be seeking to co-opt other Rio-based rivals of the Red Command in an attempt to challenge the group on its home turf.
The PCC’s ambitions are not limited to the domestic environment. Its recent spread throughout the region has resulted in it filling a void in countries where no homegrown criminal organization has taken charge.
With the Brazilian economy currently facing an ongoing crisis, the underfunded security apparatus is continuously playing catch up with the PCC. The group’s power and influence, combined with its strong transnational presence, suggest that it could attain the upper hand in the struggle against the Red Command.