(Don’t Just) Lock ‘Em Up: the PCC and the Policy-Paradox of Employing Mass-Incarceration


Fred Dunn


Any future public security strategy to counter the PCC’s emerging influence in and out of Brazil must reinterpret the role of mass-incarceration in order to interrupt the self-sustaining structure of PCC recruitment and expansion. This is not to claim that imprisonment shouldn’t represent a key punitive and strategic asset against organised crime in Brazil, but that the conditions of incarceration should be a key consideration

The emergence of the Primeiro Comando Capital (PCC, or “First Capital Command”) as a criminal enterprise of national–and now transnational–scope has been well documented. Originally claiming to represent prisoner’s rights in the wake of the 1992 Carandiru Massacre wherein São Paulo military police killed 111 people in response to a prison mutiny, the group has since expanded in-and-out of both Brazilian borders and the national carceral system. It currently has 30,000 members, controls up to 90 percent of Brazil’s 811,000 incarcerated people, and controls drug trafficking routes through Brazil and bordering states. Recorded transatlantic trade connections with the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta and Lebanese militia group Hezbollah demonstrate how the PCC has leveraged itself and Brazil into increasingly important nodes in global supply chains of illicit goods.

These observations certainly don’t imply the Brazilian state has been idle against this expansion. In 2020, Mozambican authorities (at the behest of the Brazilian Federal Police and the American Drug Enforcement Administration) arrested Gilberto Aparecido dos Santos in the capital city of Maputo, claimed to be a crucial PCC narcotics trafficking figurehead. Moreover, all senior PCC leadership is imprisoned, including known leader Marcos “Marcola” Camacho. Brazil has the third largest imprisoned population in the world, having grown by 170 percent between 2000 and 2015, the same time period in which the amount of imprisoned Americans rose by 14 percent.

Carceral Malpractice

The Brazilian carceral system is notorious for poor supervision, violence, and dire living conditions. The homicide rate for inmates was six times higher than the national average as recently as 2019. In fact, federal prisons accounting for a tiny sliver of the incarcerated population are filled to approximately 52.5 percent capacity, whereas state prisons are on average filled to 197.4 percent capacity. In Amazonas, a northern state with the highest homicide rate in the country, prisons were occupied at 483.9 percent of their capacity as recently as 2019.

Center for Strategic and International Studies researcher Ryan Berg claims these dynamics allow the PCC to disperse itself throughout the penal network and to readapt state-sponsored infrastructure for logistics and recruitment across state lines. The appeal of a social, political, and economic structure parasitic and parallel to nominal state oversight is not just for-profit, but for survival. In a carceral network wherein almost 36 percent of inmates have not yet seen trial, and where seven-in-ten offenders will be imprisoned within five years of their release, even criminals previously unaffiliated to criminal organizations are incentivized to adhere to prison-based groups like the PCC. The incentives to join the largest, most structured, and most disciplined of such groups are thus profound and sustained by Brazilian mass-incarceration.

Structured in a largely-horizontal array of Sintonías (noun for “harmony, affinity, or agreement”), the PCC consists of different thematic, regional, and functional cells in which strategic decisions (like killings, acts of terrorism or territorial incursion) are determined by the São Paulo-based Sintonía Geral Final (or “Final General” Sintonía), a board of six to eight including Marcola.

According to University of São Paulo sociologists Bruno P. Manso and Camila N. Dias, “the relationship between Sintonias is less of [hierarchical] submission, than of joint reflection and collegiality.” Sintonias are not strictly bound to a strategy set by incarcerated leadership; Dues are paid by members for “brotherhood” in-and-out of the carceral system, strict internal governance, peaceful cooperation to expand criminal enterprises, and a self-professed mission of resistance to the state.

Sintonías “run” operations both inside and outside prisons, like drug cells, legal aid groups, foreign assets, redistribution for members in need, courts of conflict resolution, and others. Dias and Fernando Salla found that beyond helping coordinate the pursuit of economic gains among a huge body of PCC brothers, membership in the group also enabled internal conflict resolution, decentralized and pseudo-democratic decision-making, as well as collective bargaining leverage against state authorities.

Prisons themselves have thus become integral catalysts for the PCC’s associative model, a strategic circumstance that has not been reflected in Brazilian security policy. Officials only acknowledged the existence of the PCC in 1996, and until 2019 had not formed a federal intelligence task force against organized crime. Following hundreds of killings in overcrowded prisons disputed by the PCC and rivals in 2017, former President Michel Temer announced the construction of 30 new prisons as a core element of the government’s response. A 2019 Folha de S. Paulo poll found that support for lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 16 years registered at 84 percent of respondents, in a year where another poll by the same agency found public security to be among the top two most important political issues for Brazilians.

The Perils of Law and Order

Former President Jair Bolsonaro successfully campaigned on hardline “law and order” rhetoric commonplace in Brazilian right-wing discourse, once commenting that é preciso prender e deixar preso, or “we must arrest [‘em] and keep [‘em] arrested.” Such discourse is prevalent, and popular. As a former army captain, Bolsonaro’s ties to the Brazilian security establishment exemplify the overlap between law enforcement and electability. Over 36 percent of Brazilian municipalities had candidates with either military or police ties between 2000 and 2016.

This trend follows a history of militarized law enforcement following the end of military regime rule in 1988.  Chr. Michelsen Institute working paper alleged in 2014–as military detachments carried out “pacification” in Rio de Janeiro before globally-publicized events such as the football World Cup or the 2016 Summer Olympic Games– that civilian leaders had increasingly enacted the military’s mandate for public security, codified in national legislation following democratization. At 6,145 in 2021, Brazilian police (whose Polícia Militar enforcement branches tend to be loosely akin to military structures) is the deadliest in the world by number of people killed.

Public security and law enforcement policies are primarily developed at the state and municipal level in Brazil, making the Federal Police smaller in scale and scope than the Polícia MilitarPolícia Civil, or Guarda Municipal forces receiving funding based on incidence of crime and political relationships with the federal government. State authorities determine how and where to allocate resources to municipalities under their security umbrella. The lack of overlap between the purviews of federal and local security apparatuses benefits criminal factions who operate across state borders.

What does this have to do with the idea that mass-incarceration is an ill-fitting solution to a growing security challenge posed by the PCC and like factions? It’s a testament to the consolidated popularity of a political paradigm that tends to prefer heavy-handed, locally-sourced solutions for public security concerns. Indeed, in this scenario, discourse and considerations related to prisoners’ rights are little more than an unwelcome distraction from an endemic issue. In a country where 64 percent of those imprisoned are Black and therefore more likely to belong to lower-income communities, INSPER policy analyst Lucas Novaes’ findings that the election of tough-on-crime candidates is correlated with increased violence against non-white men, speaks to how electoral politics and public security approaches magnify socioeconomic vulnerability in Brazil. To echo the opinions of the Brazilian security policy think tank Instituto Igarapé co-founder Robert Muggah, there are reforms which could help the Brazilian state take concrete steps to render the PCC’s parasitic relationship with the burdened penal system barren. It’s abundantly clear that any concerted effort to structurally dismantle the PCC by adapting the past decades’ policy of mass-incarceration would clash against the conventional public security wisdom which has helped sustain it. But it is difficult to imagine that by pursuing an expansion of the public defender system, reforms to the jurisprudence behind sentencing, and further engagement with social and economic rehabilitation of offenders, Brazilian prisons will continue to be assets to endemic criminal groups like the PCC. Through these long-term objectives, imprisonment can begin to revert from being a force multiplier for organized crime to representing the punitive stopgap that the Brazilian public security landscape so requires.

Tomás is currently assisting initiatives by both international and domestic organizations seeking to strengthen social safeguards both in Mozambique’s developmental trajectory and the European market for raw materials. His recent work also includes assisting in gauging the link between organised criminal groups and forced disappearances in Zacatecas, Mexico for a new permanent Disappearance Lab at Columbia University.  Tomas is a graduate of the dual-degree programme between Sciences Po and Columbia University.

Main image Credit: Prison by Fred Dunn via Flickr. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI, ECPR, Focused Conservation or any other institution.


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Tomás Dias Piva Imparato

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