The emergence of modern Brazilian criminal organisations can be traced back to the boom in incarceration and prison overcrowding in the 1990s. During this period, important changes were forged within prison spaces including the emergence of prison groups that, years later, would become criminal organisations. This development reconfigured local criminal dynamics by connecting organised criminality to incarceration. Among the groups that emerged within local prisons, the Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC [The First Capital Command] – is undoubtedly the most relevant in terms of its scope, size, economic resources, and stability. The PCC is a criminal group that originated within the São Paulo prison system in Brazil in 1993 and has since expanded to almost all of São Paulo’s prisons, overflowing onto the streets of São Paulo and other Brazilian regions and countries in South America. In the last 10 years it has been defined by state and law enforcement authorities as the largest Brazilian criminal group.
Conventional research on this subject to date has been centred around social-scientific thinking and its accompanying accepted methodologies. This has seen a tendency to categorise on-the-ground experiences into a pre-existing format legitimised by the academic community. It is therefore common for testimonies to be assigned to accepted roles: prison workers, authorities, family members and, of course, individuals who participated in the criminal groups. By contrast, the conversation reproduced below was conducted with a former member of the PCC, Carlos, who now lives outside of Brazil. Carlos’ lived experience and reflections are presented without classification.
The PCC: from brotherhood to exclusion
Could you briefly talk about your life trajectory?
I had a poor and simple childhood. During my adolescence, I grew very angry with my reality and its limitations, disbelieving that I could achieve anything even if I applied myself to my studies. At that moment, drugs and contact with drug trafficking entered my daily life, until I lost sight of my own goals.
When I was a teenager, I got involved with drugs, and began to meet important members of the PCC who worked in the local drug trades. They soon recruited me, identifying the potential I had to manage their businesses. At 18, I was arrested, at 19, I was baptized into the PCC and at 20, I was at the top of the organisation’s structure, in the most important and richest state in Brazil at the heart of the criminal organization, São Paulo. After a few years I was relieved of my responsibilities and, following this, ethically analysed my situation and understood that the drug life was not what I wanted for my future. I left and walked away, but I did not get a second chance in my country and decided to start a new life outside Brazil.
How did you make the decision to be baptized and become a member of the PCC? In this process of becoming a member of the PCC, what is the importance of being imprisoned?
The first year in prison served as a crash course in prison life. I learned how the PCC worked and had a few mentors. In my second year I was transferred to a penitentiary for first-time prisoners. They needed a trusted local leader and began to give me responsibilities and powers. As I met expectations, they gave me more power and more difficult tasks until I was transferred to a PCC leadership chain: the organisation’s leaders’ warehouse, where my baptism took place. After I was baptised, I was titled godfather to approximately 60 other people who were my godchildren.
Prison is a world with its own rules, laws, and leadership structure. In prison spaces, you take on a social role in a criminal micro-society. For some time, the prevailing ideology made me perceive the traditional State as an enemy and gave me a reason to resist and fight. When local leadership sees that an inmate understands and subscribes to the Command’s ideals, and has the qualities to advance the organisation’s objectives, both parties know it is time for baptism. I cannot remember when I decided to dedicate myself fully to this ideology, it just happened. You can only exit the PCC through death, but you can get permission to leave the PCC for religious reasons. In the eyes of the PCC, you will always be an outcast member who could at any time attempt a comeback. In my case, I was relieved of my duties following an “administrative process” which found I had displayed a “lack of responsibility” that resulted in the Command losing money. I broke one of the rules that structures the PCC, and I was removed for two years. After that period, I decided that I did not want to rejoin the organisation.
The organisational structure
Can you give us a definition and characterisation of the PCC in your own view?
The PCC is a democratic criminal federation which parasites [feeds off] the state from within, organising crime at all scales, providing security, protection, equipment, criminal networks and drug supply. Like the conventional state, it collects taxes to keep its institutions running. The PCC is heavily involved in drug distribution. The Command distributes a consignment to its members (called ‘Brothers’) who make a fair profit margin but do not keep any value of the acquired profits. In robberies worth millions (banks, armored cars, etc.), the organisation can help by equipping gangs with weapons and money in exchange for receiving a fair share of the loot. This guarantees money is always available to finance the PCC’s territorial expansion. The group operates with decentralised power divided into districts called parliaments, no member is above the organisation’s laws and decisions are made through indirect local votes.
The command manifests as a parallel state with familiar roles including those associated to the social services sector: lawyers, retirement and social security; and the defence sector: financial, drug distribution, and war material. Each member of the Command without any responsibility (that is, one who does not occupy any specific role or position) is a soldier at the disposal of his superiors. The local Tune (localised territorially) are small units of defence and mutual protection, and the war material sectors are always at the Command’s disposal for defence purposes. In peaceful contexts, including many areas of São Paulo, the Tunes that own the war material function as a warehouse: loaning weapons to members for private use. It is a way to empower poorer members to improve their financial situation with the help of The Command.
The drug distribution sector (called Sintonia do Progresso – Tune of Progress) is the financial heart of the organisation. The sector is responsible for purchasing goods (marijuana and cocaine) wholesale in neighboring countries, carrying out the logistical transport to Brazil and distributing these illicit products among members in an orderly manner, providing economic opportunities.
In addition, further sectors of the PCC provide assistance to their members and to Brazilian inmates that are ‘forgotten’ by the traditional State. For instance, a member without money to pay for a lawyer can use a lawyer paid by the organisation. Alternatively, if you have serious health problems, the PCC can pay for treatment. Members who have administrative responsibilities (Tune of Progress etc.) are paid a monthly allowance, in addition to the provision of rental cars with electronic stashes for weapons and money.
One of the most specific traits of PCC is the written records maintained about their rules, practices, decisions. Can you tell us more about The Sintonia do Livro [Tune of Book]?
The PCC maintains an extensive written record in its files of its activities. “Salve Geral” [General Letter] are laws enacted by the organisation’s final council. The Sintonia do Livro [Tune of Books] is a part of the organizational structure of the PCC. Inside this structure, there is the Livro Branco [White Book], where baptisms are recorded (new members); the Livro Negro [Black Book], where the punishments and debts are recorded, as well as the reports of all the parallel courts of the crime, informing the court’s motive, the penalties applied, the evidence and witnesses that corroborate the decision. These records are the heart of the organisation, with the Tune maintaining a logged history and broad record of activities.
Can you tell me more about the PCC’s ideological discourse to seek legitimation?
The PCC, much like the conventional State, cannot be described in few words. However, in my view, the unique characteristic of the PCC in Brazil is its use of symbols and ideology not to dominate the masses, but to invite them into the criminal world. The PCC works because, unlike the Cartels and other criminal groups, they rule by example rather than fear. Of course, force is used, but the bureaucracy and criteria applied to the use of force are unlike anything that has been seen in traditional organised crime. There are no bosses or leaders immune to the group’s rules – this is known as ‘criminal discipline’. It is this mutual respect for community and peace between criminals who embrace a fight against a common enemy – the State – that appeals to disenfranchised communities.
These thoughts and dogmas, supported by the successful deliverance of peace to communities and prisons means the PCC is characterized by an idea, not a face. Unlike human leaders and symbols, ideas are immortal. The PCC shows that its population, beyond their criminal activities, are countrymen from Brazil who suffer the same oppression as many others. The group is thus presented as a rebellion against oppression and, after all, there is no more legitimate way to delegitimise a State than by disrespecting its laws and institutions.
The alias ‘Carlos’ was used to protect the anonymity of this paper’s primary interviewee.
Camila Nunes Dias is a sociologist and professor at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC). She has studied prisons and criminal gangs over the last twenty years and some of her most prominent work can be found here.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.
Main Image Credit: Jail by oi2therevolution via Flickr.