What Brazil Prison Gang Tattoos Mean

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A captain in Brazil’s military police force says he has decoded the meaning behind some common tattoos seen in the country’s prisons, an example of the kind of coded meanings that certain tattoo designs have developed among Latin American gangs.

Captain Alden dos Santos of Brazil’s military police unit told InSight Crime that prisoners ink certain tattoos to represent specific types of crimes they have committed, including killing police, robbery, or trafficking drugs (see slideshow below). The tattoos also “serve to demonstrate power, status…and threats against the state or enemies,” Alden said.

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Dos Santos also said that some Brazilian gangs force their members to don tattoos, but first require that they commit some crime in order to prove their worth in the gang. According to dos Santos, there are currently five tattoos associated with the First Capital Command (PCC), Brazil’s largest criminal organization that grew out of the country’s prisons:

  • the numbers 1533
  • the phrase “Peace, Justice and Liberty,” or PJL
  • Yin yang tattoo designs
  • the phrase “death by gun” (morte com fuzil)
  • Images of carps

Dos Santos recently told BBC Mundo he unearthed the meaning behind the body ink by comparing criminal records and tattoos of inmates in the eastern state of Bahia.

The photos in the slideshow above were originally published by dos Santos and are reprinted by InSight Crime with permission.

InSight Crime Analysis

Gang tattoos can carry special meaning in parts of Latin America outside of Brazil as well. In Central America’s Northern Triangle region (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala), common tattoos favored by MS13 and Barrio 18 gang members include hands clasped in prayer, spiderwebs, and barbed wire.

SEE ALSO: Brazil News and Profiles

However, tattoos are just one way that gang members may communicate discreetly with each other. According to dos Santos, criminal groups in Brazil also use gang signs, clothing brands, and hair styles as ways to display their affiliation without authorities catching on. Gangs in the Northern Triangle have also reportedly developed a coded language that allows incarcerated leaders to send out orders to fellow gang members.

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