The Gangs of Brazil

This piece originally appeared in Nuts magazine

Brazil is on the up. As the sixth largest economy in the world, it’s going to spend the next few years under the global spotlight while it hosts both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

There’s just one problem: its one of the most deadly places on earth, with criminal gangs and police stuck in a cycle of indiscriminate killing that leaves thousands dead every year. Only the drug producing states of Colombia and Venezuela have a higher murder rate in South America.

Two weeks ago, Brazil’s biggest city, Sao Paulo was plunged into chaos as gangsters and cops indulged in an orgy of killing which saw 140 people murdered in just two weeks.

Sao Paulo is not alone: the northern city of Maceio, has become the murder capital of the country while Rio de Janeiro, traditionally the most violent city in Brazil, is trying to change the impoverished conditions that allows crime to flourish. Murders are down, but they remain at levels unthinkable in Europe.

So, what’s the reason for this bloodshed? The answer is drugs – and one in particular.

Brazil is the world's largest consumer of crack cocaine. The right to control that market is simply too lucrative for criminals to ignore. And they’re willing to kill to get their share.

Here, Nuts lifts the lid on Brazil’s cities of murder.

Sao Paulo
The biggest city in South America (pop. 11m), Sao Paulo hit the headlines a fortnight ago when police and gang members brought bloody war to the streets. The city’s main gang is the ruthless “Primeiro Comando da Capital” which has controlled the drugs trade here since its formation in 1993.

For years the PCC were seen as peacemakers in Sao Paulo, keeping crime down by their total domination of the streets. But crackdowns by the police led to resentment and the targetting of cops by the PCC. This year alone 92 policemen have been gunned down by the PCC – murders often ordered by gangsters in jails. Overall, 982 people were killed in the first nine months of 2012.

The PCC is run like a legitimate organisation with members (called “brothers”) paying a monthly fee of around $270 – used by the gang to buy weapons and drugs, and to finance bail for members under prosecution. Each PCC soldier also has to swear an oath of loyalty, and once a member has joined, leaving is not an option.

Rio de Janeiro
One of the most beautiful cities in the world, but also one with terrible levels of inequality, Rio has been plagued by gang violence since the early 1970s. Unsurprisingly, the gangs dominate the <favelas>, the slums that cling to the city’s hillsides.

The main criminal gang is the “Commando Vemelho”, formed in the 1970s when left-wing revolutionaries were put in jail by the right-wing government of the time. Once imprisoned, they got together with traditional criminals, and on release used guerilla tactics to take over areas of the city, just as cocaine use exploded and with it the chance to make previously unimaginable amounts of money.

Its enemies are the “Terceiro Comando Puro” and the “Amigos dos Amigos”, which vie for control of the drugs trade with the CV, though all three gangs have been hit by the city’s “pacification” programme which has helped to reduce the city’s murder rate.

Instead of fighting it out with the criminals on the streets, the Special Police Operations Battalion (or “Bope”) now swamp an area, drive out the gangsters and set up community projects. But with only 19 out of 130 favelas pacified, it’s a long journey – especially when a teenage boy can earn around $1,000 a week working for a gang.

The murder rate may be down since its 1990s peak but the ruthlessness of the gangs shows no sign of abating – only last month, traffickers threatened to kill one of Bope’s most successful cops – a sniffer dog called Boss.

With an enviable position in Brazil’s tropics and miles of sandy beaches, the capital of the Alagoa province should be a paradise on earth. But as the holder of Brazil’s highest murder rate, many of the locals claim a place in heaven by the most horrific means.

With 104 out of every 100,000 people dying violently here, the city has been transformed by the huge numbers of crack addicts in the population. Whereas Rio and Sao Paulo are controlled by mafia-like organisations, Macieo is murderously chaotic with addicts and dealers shooting each other over debts of just a few dollars. One man recently told the AFP agency he’d lost five of his sons this way. Their highest unpaid debt? Twenty-five dollars.

Local police, for years underfunded and disorganised, have been powerless to stop the 185 per cent increase in killings over the last ten years, while rumours of corruption at local government level refuse to go away. Funding is on its way, but it’s too little, too late.


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