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Urban gangs are a fixture of Brazil's prisons and favelas (slums). And the operations of such criminal groups in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are illustrative of their competition among themselves and with the state. Two major organizations — First Capital Command, or Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) in Portuguese, and Red Command, or Comando Vermelho (CV) in Portuguese — dominate this hyperviolent contest for control. The core of their power lies in the connections between prison gangs and street gangs. From prison, these groups consolidate control over criminal enterprises, shape strategies, ruthlessly attack competitors and exert internal discipline over their members. The conflicts often reach the streets.
Murder and Latin America
Extreme criminal violence has a profound impact on societies throughout Latin America. The stresses of perennial record-breaking murder rates, disappearances, and attacks on politicians, police, journalists, businesses and infrastructure instill fear and corrode democracy. Latin America accounts for about a third of the world's homicides despite having about only 8 percent of the world's population. Since 2000, more than 2.5 million Latin Americans have been murdered.
In Brazil, the situation is particularly acute. In 2018, it had 14 of the world's most violent cities. Though the number of homicides dropped 13 percent from 2017 to 2018, the death toll was still high at 51,589, and police killed at least 6,100 people last year. In Rio de Janeiro, official data show that police killings rose from 368 in the first three months of 2018 to 434 for the same period in 2019 — an 18 percent increase. At 8.9 per 100,000, the 2018 rate of police killings in Rio is the highest it has been in 20 years, accounting for 1,534 deaths. The violent competition between the police and gangs leads to increasingly frequent gunbattles and increases the risk of bystanders, tourists and corporate employees getting caught in the crossfire.
Rio de Janeiro has become emblematic of the consequences of gang violence. With gang murders, random shootings and police killings, the state of Rio de Janeiro has a homicide rate of 39 per 100,000, topping the national average of 27 per 100,000. In contrast, Sao Paulo is an example of urban stability with the country's lowest homicide rate at 9.5 per 100,000, which has fallen almost 90 percent since 2001.
A Tale of Two Cities
The difference in gang violence rates between Rio and Sao Paulo is a contemporary tale of two cities. The CV and a number of competing gangs (gangues) and militias control Rio's favelas and criminal markets. In Sao Paulo, a single gang — PCC — dominates the criminal landscape.
PCC is Brazil's largest and most violent gang. It started as a Sao Paulo prison gang and has roots going back to 1992. It consolidated its power in prison and expanded operations to the streets by forging alliances with local gangs. Police estimate that PCC controls at least 90 percent of prisons in Sao Paulo and collects street taxes from local gangs in the areas it dominates. This power is exercised via control of local gangsters in prisons in the states of Parana, Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. These states are key nodes in controlling the trafficking of drugs and arms. Sao Paulo's public prosecutor estimates that the gang's revenue is about $58 million annually. Drug trafficking is a major revenue source.
The CV is its main rival. CV also engages in drug trafficking and dominates Rio's favelas. PCC and CV previously maintained a tenuous alliance, and when that link disintegrated in mid-2016, a violent war broke out. The broken alliance with PCC accelerated the fragmentation of CV control over Rio's favelas, and dissident CV members established new factions (or "facoes" in Portuguese), such as the Third Command (Terceiro Comando). Shifting alliances weakened the Red Command's hold and allowed newer gangs to assert control over smaller gangs in various favelas. This violent confrontation included prison rebellions and attacks on the streets, where rival gangs and factions battled for territorial control.
The corrosive influence of territorial gangs (including prison-street complexes) illuminates the challenge of transnational, third-generation gangs to sovereignty and governance. Operating in the spaces they control is complex. The absence of an effective state presence and institutions of justice (police, courts and corrections) erodes the state's capacity and legitimacy, leaving a power vacuum that is filled by criminal enterprises. Building a state response will require careful analysis and will need to start with intelligence-led policing. It will need to nurture strong police and justice institutions, beginning with community police, corruption control and information-sharing through co-operative intelligence and investigative task forces. The criminal gangs challenging the state exploit criminal networks to sustain their markets, gain political power and impose a parallel political order. The police and justice system need to build adaptive, resilient and transparent networks to counter gang violence, corruption and impunity in their communities.
The corrosive influence of territorial gangs illuminates the challenge of transnational, third-generation gangs to sovereignty and governance.
Businesses — ranging from local stores to international corporations — and nongovernmental organizations are also at risk from gang interference, and it goes beyond getting caught in the violent crossfire. Businesses and NGOs are frequent targets of extortion as gangs seek to impose a "street tax" on them. They must gain permission to operate in controlled areas by paying cartels and gangs. When they fail to pay, they can become targets of violence. This "protection" racket forms the foundation of gang territorial control. Businesses (especially banks) and NGOs have faced retaliation for cooperating with investigations and have been targeted during campaigns to secure freedom from state control in Brazil's prisons. Bank and ATM robberies to fund gang activities are common. Banks and local businesses also risk being coerced into participating in money laundering. In addition, the threat of street crime — armed robbery, express kidnapping and assaults — is greater.
Moreover, gang activity can interfere with the distribution of humanitarian and social aid by NGOs. This disruption can involve direct interference, such as extortion, or can involve restrictions on the activities of aid workers that inhibit social movement and increase insecurity. The interference hinders the delivery of aid and access to water, health care and social services, such as education and welfare. In some circumstances, extreme gang activity can lead people to be displaced and vulnerable. Humanitarian workers must recognize that the implicit or explicit approval of gangs is needed for their operations to proceed, requiring NGOs to establish a dialogue (informal or structured). This communication must be grounded in humanitarian principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. At a minimum, businesses and NGOs must recognize that gangs are part of the power structure. They must also recognize the security risks through protective intelligence in order to protect their personnel. This is an essential component for effective operations in areas where gangs compete with the state for territorial control.