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Prison drug wars

Brazil’s largest cocaine cartels are waging a bloody war in the country’s prisons

Brazil’s largest cocaine cartels are waging a bloody war in the country’s prisons

São Paulo, Brazil — A war between Brazil’s two largest criminal organizations has erupted. And it’s done so in the country’s prisons.

Two riots last week instigated by Comando Vermelho (CV) and Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) were the two deadliest prison riots ever recorded in Brazil, and they were just the latest examples of an escalating standoff to control import routes from the world’s largest cocaine producers.

On Jan. 1, a bloody riot in a Manaus prison left 56 dead — some bodies dismembered beyond recognition — after the Família do Norte (FDN), an up-and-coming ally of the CV that controls the drug trade along Brazil’s border with Colombia, attacked the long-established PCC. A few days later, the PCC retaliated on their home turf, killing 30 CV-affiliated inmates in Roraima state.

It wasn’t always like this. Until 2015, both the CV and PCC worked together in a profitable relationship that spanned two decades. Born in penitentiaries, the CV took over Rio de Janeiro and the PCC managed São Paulo. They grew side by side in the late 1980s, taking advantage of Brazil’s historically corrupt prison system, which was unconcerned with their nascent criminal enterprise. As demand for narcotics mounted, the gangs learned how to use prisons as their bases of operations.

But their partnership started going sour in 2015 after the PCC encroached on Família do Norte territory — CV’s allies. In retaliation, three top PCC leaders were murdered at Manaus prison in the summer of 2015, and another 38 PCC members were killed outside Manaus prison walls between June and July of that year. It was a show of force from the CV-FDN to remind their rivals that trying to steal their territory would be met with extreme measures.

A relatively quiet year passed, but in October of last year, the PCC decided to end its long-standing relationship abruptly with the CV, accusing the gang of siding with rival groups, including the FDN. That decision triggered a wave of riots, stabbings, and executions; by the end of that month, 20 people were dead in three penitentiaries across the country’s rural north. Authorities blamed the PCC for killings in the states of Rondônia and Roraima, and concluded the CV was responsible for an attack in the state of Acre, along with 11 more who were executed there outside prison walls.

Conditions in the prisons aren’t helping the carnage. According to Human Rights Watch Brazil, the prisons in the country’s north are at least 77 percent over capacity and have one underpaid officer for every seven inmates.

And corruption is still rampant; earlier this week, Manaus’s prison director was fired as authorities pursue an investigation into his role in the death two of the inmates on Jan. 1. Before their deaths, both inmates penned a letter to the state court claiming the director was taking bribes from the FDN in exchange for letting in guns, drugs, and cellphones. They warned that the director was after them for knowing about it.

In addition, an investigation by the Federal Police and Federal Prosecutor’s office found links between the Amazonas state governor and his administration and the FDN.

It’s not hard for the gangs to recruit in prisons. Bosses use their access to a steady stream of goods unavailable to regular inmates to buy new recruits. By simply supplying things like soap and marijuana, bosses can grow their armies overnight. And thanks to drug laws the country passed about a decade ago, prison populations have increased, and HRW has recorded cases of arrests without evidence of so much as possession.

This all in turn fuels the size and scope of violent outbreaks both in and outside prisons.

“Inmates join a faction to protect themselves in prison, and remain associated once they’re out,” said HRW Brazil Director Maria Laura Canineu.

Markets continue to do a better job of influencing drug trafficking than laws. Reports rank Brazil as the world’s second largest consumer of cocaine behind the United States. And a national study by the Federal University of São Paulo concluded that Brazil is the largest consumer of crack worldwide.

Of the two gangs, the PCC is the stronger. “They are considerably more sophisticated than the CV and exceptionally well organized,” said Camila Dias, a sociologist who researches the PCC in São Paulo.

But they won’t easily be able to quash the competition. Vincent Soistier, Latin America director of the international security consultancy Amarante, says he expects the conflict to move into distribution points, primarily favelas. Given that Rio de Janeiro is the CV’s hub and a booming drug market, the Paulistas could potentially seek revenge there and try to take a slice of the pie.

They may succeed. Back in 2006, the PCC orchestrated attacks on São Paulo security forces and public transport system to shut down the largest city in the Americas. More recently, they’ve been siding with opponents of the CV in Rio to seize new territory. Although the CV could resist as it has deep political connections there, the outcome is far from certain.

“The PCC may soon step into the same playground as Mexican or Colombian kingpins,” said Vladimir Aras, Brazil’s secretary of international cooperation at the Attorney General’s office. Problems could trespass state jurisdictions. Their aggressive advance toward the north and into global trafficking follows Latin American cartel trends.”

Brazilian borders are known to be among the most permeable in the region. And if successful, the PCC could even fill the FARC’s vacuum in Colombia, according to Aras. An investigation by the Federal Prosecutor’s office found that the FDN already has a close drug and arms trading relationship with the FARC.

“As militants are demobilized, they are susceptible for a newcomer to recruit and make use of their capabilities,” he said. “The international community needs to seriously sit down and discuss Nixon’s outdated war on drugs and consumer countries must lead the talks.”

Shortly after the Jan. 1 prison riot in Manaus, Brazilian President Michael Temer referred to it as a “horrific accident.” He then pointed out that the prison is privately owned.  

Ricardo Martinez is a freelance journalist in São Paulo, Brazil.

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