When the State Retreats: Organized Crime in São Paulo

Graham Denyer Willis, from the Centre for Criminology and Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Toronto, has written an amazing piece win the Boston Review called “The Gun Library: An Ethic of Crime in São Paulo.”  Even though I’ve heard similar anecdotes about organized crime in Brazil, this article blew me away.

Graham followed police detectives around in São Paulo for 4 years and got very acquainted with an organized crime group called the PCC (or Primeiro Comando da Capital), whose main mission was to protect prisoners. The PCC controls 135 of the state’s 152 prisons and provides things the state does not (such as food and clothing).  The group has moved beyond the prisons though and now governs large portions of the favelas that surround the city.

The whole article is fascinating, but here are some of the parts I found most interesting:

1.  The PCC is extremely organized in its approach to organized crime.  Willis notes that “among the documents were Excel spreadsheets itemizing millions of dollars in weekly sales of cocaine, crack cocaine, and marijuana by area code, but there were also photocopies of membership roles including name, nickname, member number (the same as the official prisoner ID), place of residence, last three prisons stops, names of “Godfathers,” time and place of “baptism” into the organization, lists of drug distribution and sales by member name and/or nickname, quantity and amount of money owed by individual, and, among other things, inventories of cars and guns.”

2. The PCC has a code of ethics and proportionality.  For instance, “children may not be harmed, murder and other violence must be preauthorized, and perceived injustice on the part of police is met with violent retribution. Under the PCC banner, crime is at once a practice, an occupation, and an identity.”

3. The PCC might be organized, but they don’t encourage members to be overly business-like.  Here is memo they put out to their members: “It is inadmissible to use the commando [PCC] for personal gain. If a member takes advantage in order to make money from the comando, operating with cunning for personal benefit, the leadership will analyze the case and after confirming the incident, the person in question will be expelled and have death decreed. No member may use the relationship with the comando for commercial or private transactions without the knowledge of the leadership.”

4. And lastly, the PCC runs something called an “assistance bank,” which offers “a gun and a cash loan of up to 5000 Reais ($2500 USD), an amount roughly eight times the monthly minimum wage. Borrowers have their choice of an impressive array of weapons for a thirty-day loan. The document stipulates that there should be 500,000 Reais available for loan to accompany the inventory of twenty machine guns, fifteen submachine guns, fifty pistols, thirty grenades, and twenty revolvers.”


One thought on “When the State Retreats: Organized Crime in São Paulo

  1. I don’t get it. Lots of countries have issues with organized crime, but how did Brazil end up with such crazy large and powerful gangs?

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