Argument

Brazilian Organized Crime Is All Grown Up

And now Bolsonaro’s iron-fisted approach risks worsening the problem.

A woman and children walk past an armored vehicle in Rio de Janeiro on March 7, 2018.
A woman and children walk past an armored vehicle in Rio de Janeiro on March 7, 2018. Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has followed through with some of his campaign promises to crack down on crime. His administration has issued a decree allowing for greater gun ownership as a means of self-protection and advocated for a reduction in penalties for police officers who kill or injure suspects while in service. Lately, the president’s views have become increasingly more pronounced: On Monday, he told a journalist his plans would make criminals “die in the streets like cockroaches.”

The Bolsonaro administration is missing the forest for the trees. Brazil’s real problem lies in its organized crime, which has become more powerful and has expanded both inside and outside of the country. Repressive policies, much like the ones Bolsonaro is voicing, have landed more people in jails largely controlled by warring factions of the country’s increasingly sophisticated criminal organizations. More of the same will exacerbate the country’s national security woes.

The magnitude of the problem can be seen in repeated riots and bloodbaths between rival groups that control much of the country’s illicit activity from their prison cells. Recent prison riots in Pará, for example, resulted in nearly 60 fatalities. Four survivors of that prison riot were killed days later en route to supposedly stricter federal facilities.

These deaths are a sign of what has been termed “prison insurance,” through which groups wield power over outside members. Following an imprisoned leader’s orders makes sense if one is concerned about future payoffs or the possibility of revenge once a criminal leader is released. The more control a criminal group has over a prison, the more credible its claims are to improving the well-being of inmates; and the more credible its claims are, the greater command a criminal group can have over the loyalties of street-level actors who expect to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. The concept of “prison insurance” both solidifies criminal groups’ control and assists them in recruiting new members.


Organized crime in Brazil has changed—and expanded—considerably in recent years, with new midsize criminal groups emerging in northern states and the country’s most powerful faction—the First Capital Command, known by its Portuguese acronym PCC—expanding its global reach. Despite being imprisoned, these groups’ leaders are the most powerful criminals in Brazil, and the country’s prisons have become one of their most important nodes of power.

From its prison base, the PCC has expanded aggressively to directly control the drug trafficking route from Bolivian coca-growing areas and, through Paraguay and Brazil, to export markets in West Africa and Europe via the port of Santos near São Paulo. Control of this coveted route has provoked a bloody war with the Rio de Janeiro-based Red Command and helped spur regional criminal groups to try to counter the PCC’s growing hegemony.

Deadly rivalries are commonplace in Latin America’s brutal criminal underworld. But this time the stakes involve a fight for outright hegemony in one of the world’s most important cocaine trafficking routes. Regional criminal organizations that had been largely marginal to cocaine trafficking suddenly gained outsized importance as potential allies for trafficking groups looking to thwart the PCC’s bid for dominance.

The consequences of this dynamic have been felt throughout the country, as clashes over contested and highly profitable routes, such as the so-called Solimões Route through the Amazon River, have “caused conflicts and large prison massacres,” according to Marcio Christino, a criminal prosecutor from São Paulo with years of experience investigating organized crime. Whereas well-armed, highly organized criminal groups were once nearly exclusive to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo states, the Bolsonaro administration now faces upstart groups in the impoverished north, such as the Northern Family in Amazonas, the Crime Syndicate (formed by PCC defectors) in Rio Grande do Norte, and the Guardians of the State in Ceará.

Many of these groups have displayed a startling propensity for violence and mass disruption with little or no advanced warning. That’s how they demand concessions from local and regional governments, such as unfettered communication with imprisoned leaders, and pressure authorities to keep important leaders in the command structure away from maximum security facilities.

The result is that prison groups aim at a de facto veto over major elements of public security policy. For example, the Guardians of the State staged a series of destructive attacks this past January in response to a statement by the governor of Ceará promising tougher security measures in prisons. A torrent of 283 attacks were registered against public transport, police stations, businesses, and government buildings (including four attacks on local legislative assemblies) in just one month.


Over the last decade, Brazil has increased its prison population from 450,000 to over 700,000 inmates—the third-largest prison population in the world—despite having an official capacity for only 420,000 inmates. Last year, the country created 9,000 new spaces but grew its inmate population by 18,000. Data from Brazil’s Justice Ministry shows that, on average, spaces designed for approximately 10 prisoners now hold 17.

Despite the already grisly conditions in Brazil’s prisons, Bolsonaro campaigned on a promise to “stuff prison cells with criminals.” Yet, the burgeoning number of inmates contributes to severe overcrowding, which only exacerbates violence. Emphasis on repression also diverts policy attention away from the immense challenge of improving development and governance in urban areas where criminal groups provide security and control territories.

Given the scale of crime in Brazilian cities—much of it concentrated in impoverished peripheries and favelas—it is important that the Bolsonaro administration avoid turning its efforts against criminal groups into a war against socially fragile areas. Indeed, the Brazilian government urgently needs to reassert itself in areas where state institutions serve citizens poorly—if at all—in order to repair its image and compromised authority. Instead, Rio de Janeiro Gov. Wilson Witzel, a major ally of Bolsonaro, has permitted the strafing of favela residents from helicopters, and violent invasions have contributed to a recent uptick in police killings—almost five per day in Rio de Janeiro.

Ironically, this is all happening while Brazilian institutions have actually made some progress in the fight against organized crime. The crime-fighting bill proposed by Bolsonaro’s justice minister, Sérgio Moro, includes a clearer definition of organized crime and specifically cites the PCC and the Red Command. The president’s predecessor, Michel Temer, created a much-needed tool to integrate security agencies at all levels across Brazil’s vast territory into a single data-sharing system, which would greatly increase intelligence coordination. However, these measures still need to be fully implemented.

The Bolsonaro administration must also increase security cooperation with neighboring countries eager to combat transnational criminal organizations and extradite major players in Brazilian criminal organizations back to Brazil. Quite rightly, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina are concerned that the longer they hold these prisoners, the greater the risk of Brazil’s prison-based criminal organizations gaining a major foothold in their own countries. Intelligence-sharing will be critical to monitoring the expansion of these criminal groups.


In the near term, Brazil will remain an exceedingly violent country. Following its most murderous year ever, registered in 2017, Brazil’s homicide numbers have fallen recently. This downward trajectory has continued into 2019, which may lead to some complacency on the part of policymakers regarding the need to address the scourge of organized crime. Of course, there is also the risk that policymakers—and especially Bolsonaro—might prematurely credit repressive policies and increased gun ownership for Brazil’s security improvements. Gruesome massacres in the nation’s prisons provide fresh evidence of the dangers of complacency.

Although the burden of tackling these powerful organizations is largely on Brazilian leaders, their efforts will matter for regional security. The paramount challenge for Bolsonaro’s government is to dismantle the transnational empire being constructed by organized crime groups and the violent control they wield over marginalized urban areas. Improving the conditions of Brazil’s prison system in order to break criminal control there is part of the challenge. To do so, the country must turn its attention to policies that can truly strike at organized crime’s financial assets, transnational networks, and territorial bases. There is a range of powerful measures available—such as improved data collection by the police, real-time crime mapping, and incentives for police forces to reduce gun violence—but more incarceration and indiscriminate shootings aren’t among them.

Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where his research includes Latin American foreign-policy issues.

Antônio Sampaio is the research associate for conflict, security, and development at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), looking into the linkage between urbanization and conflict. He previously worked as a journalist in Brazil.

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