A Response to “The Cracking Brazilian Mirror”

I thought the piece on the Brazil prison riots brought up an interesting parallel with the past. Maintaining order in its prisons, while striving to be more humane, definitely seems to be a problem in the Brazilian system – and is just the tip of the iceberg in larger issues of inequality in which the State has played a considerable role through decades of corruption and negligence of law and order in favelas or slums, among other things.

However, I would like to disagree with your characterization of the PCC (Primeiro Comando do Capital) as an advocacy group first and a gang/drug cartel later. Though evidence suggests that they were in fact formed in the aftermath of the Carandiru Massacre, as you point out, I believe their formation was more of a gang response in search of revenge rather than an advocacy group that just happened to adopt violent means because the situation demanded it. I believe so for the following reasons:

1) Even before the Carandiru Massacre the prisoners involved in the formation of the PCC group united during football matches at the Piranhão prison, a higher security facility where they were transferred due to bad behavior (thus the group in its initial phases is better characterized as a loose affiliation of criminals).

2) Though their formation had a political agenda which among other things was to “fight oppression” within the prison system, their main goal at the time was to get revenge for the massacre.

3) In the coming years, certain leaders of the group (Geleião and Cesinha) coordinated attacks that could be considered acts of terrorism as they targeted public buildings in order to intimate the prison authorities. At this time they were already affiliated with Comando Vermelho, another leading narcotics dealing faction which controls many of the most violent areas in Rio de Janeiro state.

The reason I bring this up is that I think there is an important distinction to be made between an advocacy group that happens to adopt violent methods in pursuit of its political agenda (and in a sense can thus be compared to revolutionary groups or groups fighting against oppression – though of course their use of violence brings up ethical issues) and a criminal gang which also happens to have committed a few of their violent acts in pursuit of a political cause rather than chasing profit. I think the PCC is the latter.

The reason I think it is important to make a distinction and to clarify that the mission and raison d’être of the PCC as well as countless other drug dealing factions in Brazil is primarily profit based is because understanding the nature of crime in the country is key to the actual defence of human rights within and outside the prison system.

I think that in the drug related violence that claims many lives and livelihoods in the slums of Rio, São Paulo and other cities of Brazil, groups like the PCC play a huge role not only by actively recruiting youth, but also by essentially forcing residents to be collaborators in the running of the drug trade. The cycle of violence spurred by the trade is an enormous parallel problem to solve before the prison system in Brazil can make substantive improvements beyond just increasing its numbers.

That said, I don’t believe the state is blameless in regards to the origin of the drug cartels, and I think that there are a lot of things that the state can do better to mitigate the problem (and should have done decades ago to prevent the situation from getting out of hand the way it did) but I also think that groups like PCC which continue to be involved in prison riots and decapitations and mutilations (as witnessed by the recent outburst of violence near Natal) are clearly criminal gangs.

The situation in Brazil is messy, to say the least, and human rights violations occur on both sides of the war created by the drug trade. I think it is a dangerous thing to assume that anyone who is against the state is on the side of human rights – particularly in Brazil, where groups like the PCC have a long history of homicide, torture and violent punishments carried out in the name of revenge and power.

Aparajita Das is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC) of Rio de Janeiro.

Signs, from a past PCC takeover of a Brazilian prison, reading: “PCC: Peace, Justice and Liberty” and “Against Oppression”.