Residents walk past Brazilian soldiers during an operation against drug dealers in Rio de Janeiro on July 26, 2018. (Pilar Olivares/Reuters)

SAO PAULO — In an attempt to recruit more members, Brazil’s largest gang is taking a page from after-school programs and soccer teams. The Primeiro Comando da Capital cartel, or PCC, which boasts about 30,000 members across the country, has created a big-brother program and waived a $250 monthly membership fee. The gang hopes to recruit 30 new members a day to wage a “war” on rival gangs.

Bloodthirsty and ruthless, the PCC has rapidly branched out from its base in Sao Paulo to other Brazilian states, angering rival gangs, which have seen their membership numbers fall. Infamously business-savvy, the group has turned to innovative marketing techniques to shore up its numbers as gang tensions reach a boiling point. The group's new “adopt a brother” campaign, for example, urges members to invite at least one friend to join the organization.

Sao Paulo police learned about the recruiting techniques through a wiretap as part of an investigation of the PCC. The probe offers a rare look into the secretive group, which controls Brazil’s cocaine market and many of its prisons. In one wiretapped conversation, PCC members said they are concerned that they don’t have the numbers to challenge local gangs in remote states. “How are we going to fight a war against them?” asked one, identified as Gilmar. “We can’t, it’s not yet time.”

No matter the gang's concern about numbers, the PCC has been responsible for what police call a “true genocide” of its rivals and its own straying members in Brazil over the past decade. Police estimate that the group killed more than 400 people in the latter half of 2017 alone. According to police, the group’s leaders ordered that all murders be photographed or recorded.

“The tendency is for them to expand because they are the biggest and the strongest, so where they don’t swallow up medium and smaller factions, they will eliminate them,” said Márcio Sérgio Christino, a Brazilian prosecutor who wrote a book about the PCC.

The PCC was founded in the early 1990s in a Sao Paulo jail by prisoners looking for better treatment. A fifth of its members still operate out of prisons throughout the country.

As Brazil’s inmate population grew over the past two decades, so did the gang. It is now the country’s largest criminal organization, with outposts in Paraguay and Bolivia and links to cartels across the continent. As it prepares to venture deeper into enemy territory, the group is creating a veritable army. Police suspect the PCC is preparing to raid courthouses where guns confiscated by police are stored, according to investigation documents obtained by the local newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.

The PCC’s expansion has contributed to an uptick in crime across the country. Much of the violence has occurred in Rio de Janeiro, where homicides reached an eight-year high of 6,731 in 2017, according to government figures. Brazil’s stagnant economy has made matters worse, drying up police budgets in violent corners of the country.

Confronting the group head-on can be bloody. In May 2006, after police cracked down on PCC leaders in prison and placed them in solitary confinement, the group ordered mass uprisings in 70 jails. Forty police officers and prison guards were killed. Members also started riots across Sao Paulo and set fire to nearly 100 buses in the largest attack on security forces in Brazil's history.

But ignoring the PCC’s rise may prove even more costly.

“It’s expensive, yes. But if you don’t spend on this, what is your choice?” Christino asked. “To deliver the country to narcotraffickers? We are giving up our sovereignty.”

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