The engine of violence in Brazil

Violence in Brazil increasingly revolves around the clash between large-scale criminal organisations. Recent events, such as prison massacres across the country, help bringing the issue to light. Español

Carolina Sampó
31 January 2018

Rio de Janeiro. Mike Egerton/PA Wire/PA Images. Todos os direitos reservados.

This article is published as part of our series Which Violence in Latin America? in partnership with the University of Santiago in Chile

Approximately one year ago, a series of massacres within several Brazilian jails brought to light a problem that, far from being non-existent, had been made invisible: the reach of criminal organisations and the conflicts revolving around the management of the black market. 

It is not a coincidence to see that, according to the Atlas of Violence published in 2017, homicide rates per every 100,000 inhabitants have increased exponentially in the last years, especially in the North and Northeast of Brazil.

Between the years 2010 and 2015, the states of Sergipe, Rio Grande do Norte and Piauí have suffered a noticeable increase in their homicide rates (by 77.7%, 75.5% and 54% respectively); and if 2015 is used as the reference year, the highest homicide rates were concentrated in Sergipe, Alagoas and Ceara. This particular pattern of violence is no accident.

As seen in infograph 1, the states that suffered an increase in homicide rates of between 100% and 200% are strategically located in geographic terms. Such is the case with the Amazon, located on the border between Colombia and Peru, the number one and number two producers of cocaine worldwide.

This particular pattern of violence is no accident.

Moreover, in the case of Colombia, these are areas where many FARC dissidents are based – the 1 and the 16 mainly – that do not adhere to the agreement with the government and continue to engage in illegal activities for economic purposes.

Likewise, the violence has multiplied in Maranhao, Ceará and Rio Grande no Norte, states located on the Atlantic coast, a route commonly used by criminal organisations to traffic drugs to Europe – in many cases via Africa – and to Asia, according to the last report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

This violence appears to be very concentrated in socio-economic and age group terms. In the favelas, the most high risk group is men between the age of 15 to 29 years.


1: IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review | March 2017

In this context, criminal organisations play a central role. It is important to point out that although there are more than 30 businesses of this type that operate on the streets and manage a large proportion of the prisons in Brazil, the majority of them can be categorised within much larger organisations which could be anything between 3 and 8.

The most important criminal organisation without a doubt is the PCC (Primeiro Comando da Capital), created in the 1990s in the prisons of Sao Paulo. Although the organisation at its inception mostly operated within Sao Paulo state, its expansion strategy was successful and today they have presence throughout the country.

What’s more, it is believed that the organisation has around 10,000 members, which would make it the most numerous criminal organisation of Brazil. It is also worth mentioning the CV (Comando Vermelho), the first criminal organisation of Brazil.

Established in the 80s during the military dictatorship in the prisons of Rio de Janeiro, today it is a huge criminal enterprise present in 13 out of 27 Brazilian states. It has been able to align itself with smaller organisations in order to challenge the hegemony of the PCC.

The FDN (Familia do Norte) has roughly 2000 members, and is the most powerful organisation of the Amazon region due to the control they have over widely used drug smuggling routes in the North-East of Brazil, mainly in the Amazon states, Roraima, Pará, Rondonia (Map I).

The fourth criminal organisation controls the majority of the South: the PGC (Primeiro Grupo Catarinense). They mostly traffic Paraguayan marijuana, and cocaine from Bolivia and Peru, and their influence reaches all the way to Mato Grosso do Sul.

Finally, the fifth most important organisation is Bonde dos 40, from the state of Maranhão in the North-East of Brazil, with additional presence in Piauí. They are territorially very concentrated and in open opposition with the PCC for domination over their state. 


1: IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review | March 2017

ADA (Amigos dos Amigos) is another organisation that has gained large territories from the CV in Rio de Janeiro and has established itself in one of the largest and most symbolic favelas of the city, Rocinha.

The Guardiões do Estado, the most important organisation in Ceará, based in the city of Fortaleza has a smaller structure but controls the majority of trafficking that passes through the state. The Sindicato do Crime do Rio Grande do Norte, created in 2013, joined the CV in order to resist the advances of the PCC in their state.

Even though the list presented is hardly exhaustive and exclusive, we believe it is a clear panorama of how criminal organisations that were once limited in scale have been able to expand, even challenging the hegemony of the PCC, often due to their alliance with the CV and a large number of prison massacres have occurred as a result.

In the Amazonian states, the FDN and the CV have clashed with the PCC, leaving a death toll of 64 in Manaus, and 31 in Boa Vista (only in January of 2017). In the same vein, in Rio Grande do Norte, the Sindicato do Crime together with the CV, clashed with the PCC, resulting in a death toll of 26 in only 48 hours (from the 14th to the 15th of January of last year).

The clashes between these criminal organisations are also occurring on the streets, especially in the favelas, whether it be for control over trafficking routes or due to the markets themselves.

It is worth mentioning that the clashes between these criminal organisations are also occurring on the streets, especially in the favelas, whether it be for control over trafficking routes or the markets themselves. The majority of victims of the violence are young men from vulnerable social groups.

As underlined by the Atlas of Violence, during the first decade of the 2000s, money derived from the drug trafficking trade facilitated the creation of a local consumption market (it should be acknowledged that Brazil is the second consumer worldwide of cocaine in absolute terms and also a large consumer of crack and marijuana), which with it brought an increase in violence.

This violence is not only related to the disputes regarding trafficking routes or markets but is also directly linked to the discipline of potential dissidents and deserters that challenge the credibility of the organisation.

In summary, the violence linked to criminality in Brazil has existed on this level for many years, but has worsened since the recent rupture of the no-violence pact between the PCC and the CV (towards the end of 2016) that has become visible due to prison massacres and changes in the way organisations discipline their members.

Currently, the conflict between the PCC and the CV, together with other smaller organisations (including the FDN) is out in the open and threatens to affect the levels of general violence in Brazil, especially in the North and the North-East where control over trafficking routes from Colombia and Peru is under dispute.

It is clear that the unquestionable hegemony of the PCC is over and with it, the low levels of conflict between different criminal organisations. In conclusion, a greater escalation in violence may very well be expected for the future. 



Infographics: source IHS Jane's Intelligence Review

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