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A Violent Symbiosis: Gangs, the State, and the Rise in Crime in São Paulo

A Violent Symbiosis: Gangs, the State, and the Rise in Crime in São Paulo
Maria C. Ford | January 2015

In the past couple of years, the Brazilian state of São Paulo has faced a spike in violence. This rise in crime, however, is unexpected, because it reversed a steady decrease in crime during the first decade of this century. From 34.18 homicides per 100,000 people in 2000, the rate fell to 10.08 in 2011, close enough to 10.00, which the World Health Organization considers non-epidemic. However, since then, the rate in violent crimes has increased some 40 per cent. This has taken place despite the São Paulo government’s tough-on-crime policies, which focus on mass incarceration. While harsh anti-crime policies appeared to prove effective for a time, São Paulo is now facing the backbreaking costs of its crime policies. What is responsible for this sudden rise in crime?

The answer to this question is as complex as the problem itself. While Brazil’s recently slowed economic growth rates may contribute to the rise in crime, socio-economic factors usually take longer to manifest their consequences. The foreign debt that the Brazilian government incurred in the 1970s, for instance, was only felt by the population a decade later. Furthermore, criminal enterprises, like other industries, require a certain degree of logistics and sophistication that could not have happened in such a small time span. The most organized and influential criminal ring of the state (which is among the 11 biggest in the world), the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital), or PCC, has actually been growing steadily throughout the past decade. This means that in São Paulo, declining crime rates and illegality have coexisted harmoniously, in a bizarre accommodating relationship.

The kernel of the public security policy of São Paulo is mass incarceration. Since 1995, the jail population has increased nearly four-fold, leading the state to account for 40 per cent of the inmates in the country. The number of arrests continues to increase: In 2011 the daily arrest rate was 26.04 people, a figure that jumped to 81.85 in 2012. There are approximately 215,000 detainees in São Paulo, and due to the state’s expansion, today Brazil holds the third largest prison population in the world, just behind the United States and China. Both the media and scholars seem convinced that there is a positive relationship between the prison system expansion and the decline in crime. What no one anticipated, however, was that the expansion of the jail system actually enabled the PCC to grow and strengthen its presence. Although the PCC is an influential organized crime organization that reaches other South American countries such as Paraguay, the Brazilian prison system still serves as the organization’s headquarters.

The PCC was created in 1993 at a São Paulo prison in reaction to human rights abuses. One year before, 111 detainees were executed by the military police in what has become known as the Carandiru Massacre; the state was then notorious for poorly treating the prisoners in its custody. The PCC thus began as a sort of prisoners’ union, also known as the Party. It is worth noting that, while most of the prison gangs around the world are defined by their ethnicity, such as Arian Brotherhood and Nuestra Família, the PCC´s identity is shaped by an alterity relationship, in opposition to an oppressive state. The development of the group can be divided into three phases. The first, from 1993 to 2001, marked the group’s expansion; during the second, from 2002 to 2006, the PCC went through a process of internal reorganization, the outcome of which was a more horizontal and functionalist organization. The third, from 2006 to today, is a management stage, in which the PCC simply maintains the status quo.

During the first phase, the PCC sought to eliminate rival gangs and expand within the prison system. The government of São Paulo, in turn, used prison transfers as an attempt to demobilize the group and to punish the PCC for the riots it provoked to target rival gangs. Notwithstanding this, the Party managed to turn prison transfers to its advantage. The group spread its influence among the state’s prisons and, sometimes, used the excuse of a transfer to instigate violence against a rival gang. Prison transfer was a double-edged policy—the government of São Paulo was not just trying to punish the group by separating gang leaders from their followers, but also sought to address the pressing problem of overcrowded jails. By the end of 1995, 45.5 per cent of inmates were kept in police precincts, for lack of proper correctional facilities. To tackle the problem, in 1993 (the same year as the PCC’s founding), the government created the Secretariat of Penitentiary Administration and began building new prisons. This effort has been successful, and in 2011 only 3.33 per cent of the prison population under the secretariat’s custody was housed in precinct lockups. What began as a legitimate attempt to address overpopulation and to curb the PCC leadership, however, turned into the gang’s strategy to spread its influence.

From 2001 to 2006, during its second stage, the PCC, already leading the criminal world in São Paulo, experienced serious internal disputes. Its pyramidal and highly hierarchical structure faced questions from the lower echelons, and the group undertook major reforms. In the meantime, the government of São Paulo also started to adapt: instead of simply transferring gang members, the government created the Differentiated Disciplinarian Regime (RDD in its Portuguese acronym), a measure that allows the solitary confinement of PCC leaders for up to two years. Additionally, a 2001 law re-structured the investigative police. The Department of Crimes against Property was replaced by the Department on Organized Crime Investigation, which has many specialized sub-divisions and special precincts, according to different crimes. This new division targeted criminal gangs that had specialized in certain crimes. In response, the PCC rapidly diversified its criminal activity, a mechanism called crime migration, which forced the police into a constant state of pursuit of the gang and its activities.

During the third phase, which began in 2006, the PCC managed to stay sovereign in the crime world by the imposition of an ethos of strict prison rules, including the prohibition of homosexuality and hard drugs, as well as a set of street rules, among which is the law of murder as a last resort. When it comes to crime, the PCC must be the number one ruler, and any dispute in the streets today must be reviewed by the gang, which holds the monopoly of force. Because of this, experts like Gabriel Feltran argue that the drop in intentional homicide rates in São Paulo was actually due to the PCC’s imposition of order in the criminal sphere, rather than to government efforts to repress the PCC’s activities and incarcerate its members, a theory which has become known as “the PCC factor.” Nevertheless, during this third phase, the government continued to increase prison capacity (today there are 160 prisons in the state, 90 per cent of them “controlled” by the PCC) and began to send PCC leaders from the RDD solitary confinement to federal maximum security jails. This new strategy, however, once again proved to be advantageous for the PCC, which took advantage of the transfers to extend its influence into at least 16 of Brazil’s 26 states.

The PCC’s control over the prison system relies on the leniency of the state, which, afraid of inevitable rebellions, allowed the group to take over the system. If, in the first decade of this century, violence dropped in São Paulo, this was due to a frail accommodating relationship between the state and organized crime. This does not mean that the state was lenient with the PCC. On three occasions, two of which marked the ends of the two first stages in the PCC’s evolution, the PCC promoted unprecedented riots and attacks against the government to demonstrate its dissatisfaction. In 2001, the group mobilized 29 state prisons in coordinated riots; in 2006, the gang mobilized 72 prisons, attacked a number of police stations, and imposed a curfew in the city of São Paulo. What followed these episodes, known as the mega-rebellions of 2001 and 2006, were the attacks of 2012, during which the gang carried out police executions for months, murdering a total of 106 police officers over an eleven-month period. The progression of the rebellions, from the prisons to the streets, demonstrates the gang’s expansion.

Until 2012, the state and the PCC co-existed under an unstable truce, attempting to target each other in a tit for tat fashion. At the same time, as long as the crime rates were low, the government seemed to tolerate the fact that the PCC was ruling the state prisons. This delicate equilibrium collapsed during the mega-rebellions, but seemed to resume thereafter under a frail balance. That crime rates in São Paulo have been rising since 2012, indicates that the accommodating system may have reached a tipping point. The PCC is definitely sovereign in and outside of the prison system, and perhaps does not need to co-operate with the government of São Paulo anymore, definitively shifting the balance of power toward the gang.

The problem of crime in São Paulo is complex. Violence rates are determined not just by the criminals, but by their relationship with the state. Solutions to these problems are not easy to find. Mass incarceration has clearly failed to stem the PCC’s expansion, and indeed has contributed to the group’s growth and development. Given that 43.5 per cent of the Brazilian detainees await trial in detention and that the prison system is essential for the PCC’s symbolic power and foot-soldier recruitment, one recommendation for the state of São Paulo is to shift investments from expanding the prison system to the judicial system, in order to implement alternative punishments for minor felonies and to expedite court trials. 

Maria C. Ford recently completed a Masters degree in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary. Maria is Brazilian, and moved to Canada to complete her studies three and a half years ago. In Brazil, Maria obtained a B.A and a B.Ed at the University of São Paulo, and a LL.B at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. Also, at the University of Calgary, Maria attended the Bridge to Teaching Graduate Program at the Department of Education. Currently, Maria is teaching in a Catholic school in Alberta.