Contemporary DTOs in Brazil

By Alexandra Smith

Today, gangs like the Red Command and the First Capital Command play major roles in drug trafficking and violent crime in Brazil. However, the context of these organizations is more complex than the narrative often promoted by both Brazilian and international media and governments which centers gangs as the biggest threat to Brazil’s political, economic, and social system. The gangs are a symptom, not a cause, of an unjust, violent economic and social system dating back to Brazil’s dictatorship. Both the CV and PCC emerged from the rampant inequality in Brazil, as well as its inhumane prison system. Police violence and militias significantly contribute to the level of violence in Brazil. Further, the CV and PCC are able to exert social control in favelas, a type of informal settlement or shantytown which emerged in Brazil’s major cities, in part because they provide services and job opportunities to the poorest Brazilians often ignored by the state. Further, the government policy of considering areas where gangs operate as “rebel space” which needs to be “reconquered” contributes significantly to the level of violence.[1]

Red Command (CV) was one of the first gangs to develop in Brazil’s prison system, through an alliance between leftist guerillas and criminals.[2] Red Command was founded in 1979 and has been active in Brazil since then, rooted in the prison system but connected to organized crime across the country.[3] The group began in Rio’s state jails, but when the Brazil’s dictatorship (1964-1985) attempted to break up the gang by sending leaders to jails in distant states; they simply set up new chapters wherever they were sent.[4] The Red Command worked with Colombian cartels in the 80s to distribute cocaine and gained control of many of Rio de Janeiro’s poorest neighborhoods.[5] Within these neighborhoods, they even became a source of employment and set up parallel systems of government.[6]

Red Command is strongest in Rio de Janeiro, where “it was thought to control more than half of Rio de Janeiro’s most violent areas, though this fell to under 40 percent by 2008,” but the group is thought to be declining. In 2016 the group’s alliance with the PCC broke down, leading to outbursts of violence, especially in prisons.[7] Red Command worked with the Family of the North, based in Manaus, from 2015 to 2018.

First Capital Command (PCC) emerged in 1993 in the Taubate prison in Sao Paolo when they assassinated rival criminals following a football tournament.[8] PCC offered its members protection in the form of unity, as well as legal aid, and became an effective gang within the Sao Paolo prison system.[9] Beginning as a group which sustained itself through dues rather than organized crime, the PCC grew quickly while the government denied its existence.[10] The PCC gained prominence through simultaneous seizures of hostages in prisons, such as an instance in 2001 when they took control of 29 prisons and took 10,000 hostages.[11] The PCC has been able to intervene in Brazil’s political system to ensure the election of candidates it views favorably, and a truce between the PCC and the government led to a 46% drop in Sao Paolo’s homicide rate.[12]

During the last decade, the PCC has been involved in drug trafficking operations, money laundering, and engages in violent armed robberies.[13] The PCC has led prison riots in their fight against the RV beginning in 2016, resulting in hundreds of deaths, while operating in Uruguay, Bolivia, and attempting to recruit former Colombian leftist guerilla fighters.[14] The PCC has not only contributed to violence in Sao Paolo and the RV’s home state of Rio, but also in Northern Brazil, where allies of the two groups compete for control over prisons. PCC allies include the Guardians of the State in the northern territories of Brazil and the Friend of Friends in Rio de Janeiro.[15]

Further Reading

  1. For more information, background, and news on the Red Command, see:
  2. For more information, background, and news on First Capital Command, see:
  3. For regional homicide statistics, see:
  4. For more detailed statistics and maps on crime in Brazil (the website has English, Portuguese, and Spanish options):


ARIAS, ENRIQUE DESMOND. “Gang Politics in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.” In Global Gangs: Street Violence across the World, edited by Hazen Jennifer M. and Rodgers Dennis, by Venkatesh Sudhir, 237-54. University of Minnesota Press, 2014. Accessed April 25, 2020.

Coutinho, Leonardo. “The Evolution of the Most Lethal Criminal Organization in Brazil—the PCC.” PRISM 8, no. 1 (2019): 56-67. Accessed April 25, 2020.

Grillo, Ioan. Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America. New York: Bloomsbury Press (2016).

[1] Arias, 251.

[2] Grillo 42.

[3] Grillo 59.

[4] Grillo 93.




[8] Coutinho, 57.

[9] Coutinho, 57-8.

[10] Coutinho, 58.

[11] Coutinho, 58.

[12] Coutinho, 61.




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