The recrudescence of fights between gangs: a Brazilian war The recrudescence of fights between gangs: a Brazilian war
The new, violent wave of clashes among gangs that is concerning Brazil seems very far from stopping. Although this atypical – yet brutal –... The recrudescence of fights between gangs: a Brazilian war

The new, violent wave of clashes among gangs that is concerning Brazil seems very far from stopping. Although this atypical – yet brutal – war is not a new one for the country, the cruelties that have been perpetrated in just few weeks may suggest a further deterioration of the Brazilian security system flaws.

The series of slaughters that is affecting the country began on January 1, when a massive uprising broke out in the Manaus penitentiary Anisio Jobim, the largest structure in the state of Amazonas. State authorities confirmed that the number of inmates escaped from the penitentiary amounted to 184, while 56 people were killed. Information about the abominable methods killers used also leaked. Most of the victims were beheaded, their corps thrown out of the building’s walls. Furthermore, the toll of assassinations resulting from riots within penitentiaries and public prisons has dramatically gone beyond one hundred units in two weeks only. These revolts were concentrated in the northern part of the country (Amazonas, Roraima, Rio Grande do Norte).

The actors of this ferocious battle are Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) and Familia do Norte (FDN). These are among the most powerful Brazilian gangs and rely on a network that is well rooted in all the country’s states. The natural rivalry between the two groups stems from the competition for the control over the most profitable businesses in Brazil (such as drug trafficking, arms trade and management of penitentiaries). These clashes are therefore to be considered as the recrudescence of an old enmity. The two gangs cooperated partially for a certain period, creating a sort of cartel for organized crime. However, a dispute over the control of the drug trade between Paraguay and Brazil has destroyed this collaboration. Indeed, PCC allegedly cut out FDN, which in reaction declared open war to PCC – publishing a song, funk da FDN, which got viral on the main social networks. Vengeance thus began in Manaus, closely followed by new riots in Boa Vista, state of Roraima, and in the state of Rio Grande do Norte. Minor gangs, such as Comando Vermelho (CV) and Sindacato do Crime do Rio Grande do Norte, were also involved as partners of FDN, consequently increasing the magnitude of the fights, which now risks to become an actual civil war.

Brazil is unfortunately not new to such dramatic events. They may be actually interpreted as the expression of an inner security problem that has concerned repeatedly the life of this country. In the first place, the enormous influence that gangs are able to exert on the entire national territory is a matter of fact. Rival gangs that are now fighting have indeed demonstrated that they can rely on an extremely structured network, which is active in virtually every state of the Federation. PCC, originally from São Paulo, has managed to infiltrate in the organized crime system of northern states, gaining power at the expense of FDN. On the other hand, FDN has focused on the extension of its network of criminal partners, which conversely can take advantage from the affiliation with a more powerful group. In addition, the dynamics at the base of such a criminal environment follow the law of the strongest; therefore, no balance is permanent. This logic provides a constant stimulation to smaller groups, which seek to grow their territorial influence while destroying other competitors. The war against the most powerful gang in Brazil might then lead some profitable results for FDN as well as for its allies.

The weakness of institutions is a second element. This appears evident in the widespread corruption. Central government has repeatedly tried to counter this plague, increasing its effort during the recent global events hosted by Brazil. The bet at stake was to show that the country was able to achieve western standards under a number of aspects. Results were however little and proved that the effectiveness of adopted policies was inversely proportional to the distance from the centers of power (Brasilia, Rio and São Paulo). Moreover, the current situation is further exacerbated by rampant economic and political crisis, which have put to serious risk the credibility of the Brazilian institutions both at a national and international level. In this sense, the recent corruption scandal that entangled the managing board of the leading party Partido do Trabalho, involving also former presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, demonstrates that relevant policies should address this problem primarily on an educational level.

Nevertheless, the core of the security issue lies probably in the penitentiary system. First, the overpopulation of Brazilian jails makes the proper management of services impossible. Brazil ranks 4th for total number of inmates1, which is estimated to be three times as much the overall capacity of penitentiaries. The danger represented by overpopulated facilities is further intensified by the dearth of prison officers. This data is even more evident if related to the excessive number of convicts. The aforementioned revolt occurred in the state of Roraima on January 6 provides a suitable example: only 15 guards on duty for approximately 1500 prisoners. On the other hand, the alarming imbalance between inmates and control bodies, combined with the persistent corruption, transforms penitentiaries in highly strategic elements that criminal groups manage as actual assets.

The issue of rampant criminality is a plague that affects not only Brazil but also the majority of Latin American countries. An interesting study by Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada reports that one tenth of the homicides perpetrated in world are committed in Brazil2. Yet, the same research underscores that data has displayed an opposite tendency in the southeastern part of country, with a considerable reduction of violent crimes in that region3. This may appear as a further proof of the abovementioned inverse proportion between effectiveness of relevant policies and distance from the main centers of power.

Finally yet importantly come the problems posed by the criminal law system in force. Complications originate mainly from the tendency to criminalize a number of crimes that might be considered of secondary relevance, such as drug consumption. The central issue is actually linked to drug-related offenses, as they represent a noteworthy share of the total of crimes committed. The strong criminalization echoes the international system implemented by the UN from 1960s and outlined by the three relevant Conventions, i.e. the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 – amended in 1972 –, the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 and the UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988. It is not by any chance if the interval in which UN documents were drafted corresponds to the most intense period of the “war on drugs”, an aggressive action that some countries (pushed by the strong U.S. initiative) undertook to oppose the alarming increase in the magnitude of drugs consumption and trade. This system provoked visible tensions within the social structures of several Latin American countries, which are generally acknowledged among the most active drug producers in the world, and seems now far from reflecting the needs and the priorities of societies of Central and Southern American countries. An op – ed published in March 2016 on the Los Angeles Times and edited by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Cesar Gaviria and Ernesto Zedillo, former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico respectively, draws the attention on this necessity for a net change in international policies against drug – related crimes. The three ex – presidents asked for an amendment of the UN Conventions system, underlining the enormous collateral damages aroused by the strong criminalization the international community opted for some fifty years ago. Despite the high expectations for the April Special Session of the UN General Assembly, there was no tangible change in the system. The immobility exhibited by the relevant UN bodies, namely the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the International Narcotics Control Board and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, binds all the countries that ratified the Conventions, including the main drug – exporters, to apply rigid rules within national borders. Yet, it has been generally recognized that such a draconian line of action does nothing but intensifying a situation that is already compromised. Brazil is thus suffering also because of a disadvantageous international law system, as well as for its proximity to Washington.

The Brazilian government is responding to the public security issue with the new Plano Nacional de Segurança Pública, which is built on three main pillars: the reduction of violence against women; a more coordinated action against transnational organized crime – concentrating mainly on drug and arm trafficking –; the modernization and the rationalization of the penitentiary system. Ministry of Justice Alexandre de Moraes declared that a new intelligence center would integrate the activity of existing domestic and military intelligence services, focusing on a more in – depth control in the 26 states. The idea aims at reproducing the positive experience of surveillance the government put in place during the Football World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic games in 2016. Its end is to implement a video – monitoring system in every important city while enhancing the system Alerta Brazil that is already in service on several Brazilian highways. The rapid degradation of the situation, combined with the crisis that is weakening the country under several aspects, casts however some serious doubts on these reforms, which might not be sufficient to heal Brazil’s security system deficiencies. In the background, the violent war among gangs continues.


1 Data from World Prison Brief [website]
2 Batista F. et al., 2016, p.38.
3 Ivi, p.7.
Alessi G., Rebeliões sinalizam fim de pacto entre PCC e CV e espalham tensão em presídios, in “El Pais”, October 20, 2016 (
Batista F., Bueno S., Cerqueira D., De Lima R. S., Ferreira H., Hanashiro O. and Nicolato P., Atlas da Violência, March 17, 2016.
Charner F. and Chandrika Narayan C., Dozens dead in 2nd Brazil prison riot in 6 days, officials say, in “CNN”, January 6, 2016 (
World Prison Brief (

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