Brazilian City Wakes to Prison Gang's Power

A police officer stands with weapon drawn during the funeral of a student allegedly killed by police during clashes in Sao Paulo on Thursday. The violence followed prison riots triggered by the leak of a government plan to transfer imprisoned gang leaders to a high-security facility.
A police officer stands with weapon drawn during the funeral of a student allegedly killed by police during clashes in Sao Paulo on Thursday. The violence followed prison riots triggered by the leak of a government plan to transfer imprisoned gang leaders to a high-security facility. (By Andre Penner -- Associated Press)

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By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 21, 2006

SAO PAULO -- Top Brazilian law enforcement officials and lawmakers gathered behind closed doors last week in the National Congress to devise a secret plan: They would weaken Brazil's most powerful prison gang by transferring many of its leaders to a remote, high-security prison.

But the secret didn't last. The gang, with a reach stretching far beyond prison walls, had a mole in the room.

Arthur Vinicius Pilastre Silva, an employee of a company hired by the government to tape such meetings, later admitted during a public inquiry that he had accepted the equivalent of $93 to slip a copy of the recording to attorneys for the First Command of the Capital, the gang more commonly known by its Portuguese initials, PCC.

Within hours of that meeting, news of the transfer plan had spread through the gang's prison-based network, and millions of residents of South America's largest city would soon find out just how powerful the PCC had become.

Riots broke out in more than 70 state penitentiaries. Gang members outside prisons attacked police stations, burned more than 60 public buses and whipped up a general state of terror that paralyzed Brazil's Sao Paulo. Angered and humiliated by the uprisings, law enforcement officers roamed through neighborhoods with guns drawn, killing more than 100 people they claimed were connected to the PCC. In all, more than 170 people died in a week of open warfare between the gang and the police.

"What happened in Sao Paulo was a provocation," President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told reporters, "a demonstration of organized crime's strength."

That strength had been feeding on the weakness of government for years. The PCC was founded in 1993 as a response to the abysmal conditions in Sao Paulo's prisons, where inmates lived in fear of each other, sleeping in overcrowded cells with no beds, no blankets, no soap, no toothbrushes.

By offering protection and basic necessities to new inmates, the gang won the loyalty of most prisoners in a population that now numbers 124,400, according to interviews with prison guards, former inmates, outreach workers and crime analysts. Even if prisoners are not officially members, many are designated "brothers" or "sisters" who can be counted on to support any show of force.

Because gang leaders can organize riots and easily overwhelm prison guards, the PCC has repeatedly won minor improvements in conditions in some facilities. That has earned them favor not only with the inmates, but with the family members who provide the basic goods that PCC members distribute inside the prison blocs. Threats of violence, according to former prisoners, help guarantee loyalty, both inside and outside the facilities.

"The prisoners live in terrible conditions," Carlos Weis, a public defender, told a panel of human rights experts and judicial officials in Sao Paulo on Friday. "Their natural response is turning that violence back to us."

After forging an alliance six years ago with Rio de Janeiro's largest street gang, the Red Command, the PCC has taken to drug and arms trafficking to fund its operations and broaden its scope, crime analysts said.

"We can't do anything," complained Paulo Gilberto Araújo, 54, a 29-year veteran of Sao Paulo's prison guard system who said he spent much of last weekend negotiating with PCC leaders for the release of several colleagues seized during the uprisings. "Everyone in the prison is a hostage to the PCC. They make all the decisions, not the prison administrators."

According to Araújo and other members of the Sao Paulo's prison guards union, SINDASP, corrections officials have acquiesced readily to the gang's frequent demands. Inmates used to be limited to two visits a week, they said, but PCC complaints boosted the number to four. The gang demanded better food and got it, the guards said. Recently, gang leaders demanded that the state change the color of prison uniforms from orange to gray.

Under PCC pressure, guards and others said, administrators approved the delivery of 28 television sets to the Avaré prison so that inmates could watch this summer's World Cup soccer tournament. Nagashi Furukawa, who oversees Sao Paulo's prison system, struggled to explain the approval this week. "I don't have any information that those televisions were bought by any criminal organization," he said at a news conference.

After word of the planned transfer was passed to the gang's leaders, coordinating the uprisings was easy. They simply called each other on their cellphones.

According to police, the gang often clones legitimate cellphone numbers for illegal use. Last week, a narcotics investigation unit uncovered a PCC office in Sao Paulo with more than 100 cellphones and a laptop computer containing a list of about 1,000 cloned telephone numbers. Some former prisoners said the guards, who make about $560 a month, can be easily bribed to pass a cellphone through the bars.

"When I was in prison, my cellphone was my lifeline," said a recently released 45-year-old woman who spent three years in the Sao Paulo penitentiary system for drug trafficking. "It was the only way I could let my family know what happened to me."

After last week's upheaval, Brazil's national legislature hurried to pass measures controlling cellphone signals and stiffening penalties for prisoners caught with communications equipment. But prison guards said they could not control cellphone use because visitors often smuggle in new ones in food or their own body cavities.

Anyone who wants to visit the cellblocks of a PCC-controlled prison in the state of Sao Paulo must get permission to enter from the "pilot," the PCC official who heads each row of cells, guards said. Gang members entrusted to rough up those who get out of line are called "Bin Ladens." At the top of the gang's hierarchy are the "generals." The gang also employs a network of attorneys, such as the one who paid Silva for the recording of the recent meeting in Brasilia.

Heidi Cerneka, who regularly visits prisons as part of a Catholic outreach program in Sao Paulo, said the gang was able to reach beyond the prisons through the prisoners' families. It requires each family to pay a monthly membership fee of about $20 on behalf of its prisoner. Because many families are poor and can barely afford food, they become indebted to the organization. This engenders loyalty both inside and outside of the prisons.

"I was in a jail Tuesday that didn't have a rebellion, and the director told me they would probably have one that day because the prisoners would have to answer to the PCC if they didn't" rebel, Cerneka said. "They basically said to him, 'We have to do this because they know where our families live.' "

The gang members also know where the police live, as they demonstrated last week. Some of the officers who died during the outbreaks were killed near their homes while off duty. The police responded in kind, launching two nights of massive raids throughout Sao Paulo. As of Saturday, the death count totaled 41 police officers, 18 inmates, 107 suspected PCC members outside prisons and four civilians.

A military police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, defended the police operations and said they were proof that officers had the upper hand, even if they could not guarantee that such uprisings would not happen again. "The root of the problem is out of our league," he said. "There are so many other social matters involved."

Ubirajara Rodrigues, a prison guard in Sao Paulo for 24 years, said the past week had exposed all those matters. "For years people have treated the prison system like it was on some faraway planet with no connection to their lives, and now they can't ignore it," he said. "It's like a virus that can't be denied. Everyone is infected."


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