Brazil’s Biggest Gang Challenging Rival’s Control in Rio

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Police in Brazil intercepted gang communications suggesting the First Capital Command is expanding in the state of Rio de Janeiro, potentially paving the way for violent confrontations with the now-rival Red Command following the recent breakdown of the two groups’ long-standing alliance.

The phone calls were made from the São Paulo penitentiary system by members of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), the most powerful and best-organized criminal structure in Brazil. The discussions depict an attempt to co-opt criminal actors linked to the Rio de Janeiro-based Red Command (Comando Vermelho), the country’s second most powerful gang, the Globo media network reported.

The transcripts of the conversations reveal that the São Paulo-based PCC proposed to supply drugs for the organizations in Rio to distribute in addition to offering to send weapons, housing subsidies and legal help. Some of the phone calls, Globo wrote, “sound more like job interviews” than discussions between criminals.

“The commando will send you merchandise on credit. You will have 15 days to pay. If you need a weapon, or anything else, you can ask the commado for a loan to run an errand, to lead an assault,” a PCC member says in one conversation.

The revelation of these conversations comes just over a month after violent prisons riots left 18 inmates dead in northern Brazilian penitentiaries, signaling to the public the end of the 20-year-old alliance between the PCC and the Red Command. Since then, Brazil has witnessed a sizeable increase in gang confrontations within its penitentiary system.

The intercepted communications reportedly confirm that the PCC began its outreach to Rio-based criminal groups eight months ago — in other words, several months before PCC leaders formally declared war on the Red Command in response to the latter allegedly aligning with PCC enemies.

The police official who coordinated the investigation into the PCC’s expansion in Rio, Antenor Lopes, said the group’s strategy is to initially take over the drug trade in municipalities in the state of Rio before moving in on the capital city — the birthplace and traditional stronghold of the Red Command, reported Estadão.

According to a report from O Globo based on Lopes’ investigation, the PCC has already succeeded in rallying 80 criminal elements in seven different cities in the state of Rio de Janeiro, with the goal of undermining the Red Command’s control in the area.

InSight Crime Analysis

The ongoing tremors in Brazil’s criminal landscape signal major shifts in gang alliances, which may eventually translate into violent confrontations in certain gang-controlled areas of Rio de Janeiro.

There are several factors that likely contribute to the PCC’s desire to expand its presence in Rio, one of which is the attraction of the city’s criminal economies.  By some estimates, a large drug trafficking operation in Rio can earn up to 1 million Brazilian reais (about $290,000) per week.

Lloyd Belton, an analyst at the consulting firm S-RM, told InSight Crime that “the illicit drug trade here in Rio is far more lucrative than in other parts of the country given higher consumption here, particularly around the city’s tourism industry. The PCC clearly wants a piece of the pie.”

Belton also pointed to the city’s dire budgetary situation, arguing that the related security shortcomings have increased criminal opportunities and thus possibly strengthened the incentive for the PCC to act. He concluded that the city’s “security forces are simply not up to countering the spiraling organized crime problem, and a PCC-Red Command war would likely drive violent crime levels to an all-new high.”

SEE ALSO: PCC News and Profile

Moreover, the historically fractured landscape of Rio de Janeiro’s underworld could play into the PCC’s opportunistic move.

According to Vincent Soistier, the representative in Brazil for the security consulting firm Amarante International, the Red Command mainly has a presence in the northern area of the city, while the Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends) gang maintains a presence in the south and the Pure Third Command (Terceiro Comando Puro) largely controls areas in the center and west of the city. Other areas in the west are controlled by “militias” — criminal groups originally composed of active or retired security force personnel.

Though Soistier said there have been periods of relative underworld stability, territorial disputes have occasionally resulted in conflicts between these various groups. It is possible that the PCC could take advantage of these local dynamics by aligning with other criminal organizations also challenging the Red Command. In fact, Soistier noted that the PCC is rumored to have partnered with Amigos dos Amigos, one of the Red Command’s main rivals in Rio.

SEE ALSO: Red Command News and Profile

George Mason University professor Desmond Arias suggested to InSight Crime that such a strategy fits with the PCC’s general modus operandi.

According to Arias, the São Paulo-based PCC is not only much less challenged by competitor groups in its home city, but it has a different notion of power that does not rest on territorial control to the same extent as its Rio-based counterparts. Rather, the PCC exercises its power by pooling resources from its various associated cells and putting these finances at the service of its member factions, all while enforcing a specific set of rules akin to a criminal “code of conduct.”

Arias argued that the PCC’s operating style points to a certain level of sophistication. The gang’s strategy allows for more efficient, less violent management of its various factions compared to the typical strategy of Rio-based gangs, which are much more focused on maintaining territorial control through force.

The PCC appears to be applying this strategy in its expansion into Rio; the gang is not seeking to directly and violently confront the Red Command, but rather it is attempting to draw in new partners to solidify its own power base while simultaneously weakening its rival.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the PCC’s attempts to build up its influence in Rio will be entirely peaceful.

As Belton put it, “a successful PCC takeover of the city’s underworld largely hinges on whether it can win over groups traditionally at war with the Red Command in Rio, such as Amigos dos Amigos and Terceiro Comando Puro,” adding that if “the PCC is [indeed] planning to slowly capture territory around the capital, we could be in for a final violent PCC-Red Command showdown in Rio city in the coming months.”

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