São Paulo, 2009. Community residents of the favela Paraisópolis protest against the killing of a resident by the Military Police. The Military Police responded that the resident was a fugitive and a member of the PCC, an organized crime group, which had subsequently ordered residents to incite violence. Photo: Alexandre Vieira / Futurapress.

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In case of loss, guns may be replaced either by paying a cash fee, or by substituting with a gun of the same model, caliber and conditions of use as that which was lost by the borrower.

—Gun Library of the Primeiro Comando da Capital

From 2009 to 2012, I accompanied police detectives in São Paulo as they went about their work, from filing reports in local precincts to investigating homicides and police shootings of civilians. Hardly a day went by without allusion to the Primeiro Comando da Capital, or PCC, an organized crime group in the business of protecting prisoners. With strongholds in 135 of 152 of the state of São Paulo’s prisons, the PCC has grown during a time when São Paulo’s prison population has swelled to 196,000, so there is no shortage of prisoners in need of protection. The PCC provides basic necessities—food, clothes, hygiene products—the state never has. Prisoner safety is no longer the prerogative of the Secretary of Penitentiary Administration: violence occurs, but usually doesn’t, because the PCC says so.

Today, the PCC polices inmates and the prison visitor line, but that is just the beginning. PCC members abide by a strict criminal code that regulates when, where, and why violence can be used—especially in areas that have the worst records of violence in the city. Since the early 2000s, the PCC has also governed large parts of São Paulo’s periphery, going so far as to routinely organize tribunals involving witnesses, victims, suspects, and family members in cases of violence. In severe incidents, where the life of a defendant is on the line, these proceedings are judged by specially tasked members known as disciplinas who are patched in by cell phone from prison. Among other services the PCC offers are free transportation for families to visit incarcerated members, a standing cohort of lawyers—known as “neckties” (gravatas)—to defend arrested members, loans to the needy in PCC communities, and a guarantee that the organization will cover all costs of a funeral for a member or “friendly” who is killed by police or by accident.  

São Paulo's prisons became relative safe havens for those committing themselves to what the PCC calls an “ethic of crime.” 

During my time researching São Paulo’s detectives, I was given documents seized from an arrested PCC member.These files reveal an organization that is more than just a powerful drug trafficking outfit. Beyond that, they are also fixated on its own brand of justice and security. 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. One of these documents describes a kind of gun library.

• • •

Groups such as the PCC are not exceptional, either in Latin America or in comparison to other well-known organized crime groups like the Sicilian mafia. But they are increasingly visible in major cities throughout the Global South, where spiraling inequality and poverty have excluded large communities. The people in these communities—what popular media called the “slums” of Latin America—have had to improvise solutions for missing public infrastructure, from housing and sewerage to electricity and collective transportation. The gradual recognition that slum dwellers are citizens too has sometimes led city management to integrate these solutions, either as newly funded public services or as private but publicly regulated services. Often, though, where the ad hoc solutions clash with the mores of the market and large corporate interests, they are simply abolished.

One kind of local solution is proving more entrenched than others. In the absence of police, power holders often take control—and exploit—security provision. Prominent among them are sword and shield social groups such as gangs, organized crime groups, paramilitaries, vigilantes, and militias, which have the capacity both to cause harm and to shelter constituents from it. Reminiscent of Charles Tilly’s view of statemaking as organized crime, these groups come in different forms and scales. Empowered by lucrative illicit economies—drugs, guns, sex work, pirated goods—they act as violent offenders, guardians of social order, and gatekeepers of financially and socially rewarding jobs all at once.

 • • • 

Like the Sicilian mafia—which, Diego Gambetta has shown, originated in the “private protection” of wealthy landowners—the PCC has its roots in failing public security. The group arose in the aftermath of São Paulo’s 1992 Carandiru prison massacre, when a police riot squad systematically killed 111 inmates. Telling of the horror, a doctor at the prison reported that most of those killed were cowering in their cells and that surviving prisoners were made to carry the dead and to stack the bodies in long rows. Many who resisted were summarily shot by police.

The trauma of the massacre catalyzed survivors to band together. Less than a year later, they drafted a formal statute outlining a new regime of order and justice in defense of the prison population. Explicitly referring to the Carandiru massacre, the document laid down inviolable rules for prison behavior, punishment, and security for those on the inside.

São Paulo’s prisons were remade in short order. Like a sovereign power that tightly regulates the conditions of life and death, this new system of governance leapfrogged its way from prison to prison, overtaking and eliminating rivals, sometimes in bloody riots. Though Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have for decades decried São Paulo’s prisons as medieval dungeons rife with prisoner-on-prisoner and state-on-prisoner violence, they became relative safe havens for those committing themselves to what the PCC calls an “ethic of crime.” According to this ethic, 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.

• • •

Some of the documents given to me by police suggest that the PCC has a business outlook, but others revealed a deeper rationale, evident in the bureaucratization of rules and the impersonal provision of services. For example, messages called salves, directed to all members, dictate new rules or adaptations of old ones in response to problems or changing dynamics within the organization. When five robbers killed a boy during a home invasion in 2013, for example, PCC leaders sent a salve saying that violence against children would not be tolerated, citing the fact that, among other things, “we all have families.” Within days, two of the robbers were dead. Two others were arrested by police, only to be killed in prison. The only survivor, a minor, is in protective juvenile custody. It remains unclear whether the robbers were even members of the PCC. But the PCC quickly took control of the outcomes of their crimes, using them as examples of their crime ethic.

Indeed the organization has been particularly critical of members who are too business-like. The most recent PCC statute, drafted in 2011, speaks explicitly about capital punishment for members who seek personal profit over the goals and collective well-being of the organization (which members call the “comando”):

It is inadmissible to use the comando 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. Our brothers who invest their own capital and have “merchandise” or a “tool” for business can do business with the family and make their profit as long as it is not abused, since all fruits of this work are for those who need it, in keeping with our ideology.

The dominant message, in this and countless other documents, is that the PCC believes that it exists for a higher good, beyond the accumulation of wealth.

In this vein, one 2,300-word document entitled “Assistance Bank,” dated February 2011, is particularly striking. I have translated the document to reflect original punctuation; it begins:

The street leadership informs all members, on the inside and the outside, that from this day forward and thanks to the generosity of our members, there will exist within the organization a support group for our brothers who come to need assistance with firearms and financial assistance for rent deposits or other more significant emergency necessities this group will be known as the assistance bank the central objective of this new work will only be to strengthen those brothers who have been recently released, a period of six months or less, the family shows that the creation of this group, in keeping with our ideology, leaving aside our theoretical point but applying it in practice equally for all in the spirit that crime must strengthen crime in the search for a way to maintain the spirit of resistance in each and every member, and in doing so to give value to our ideology, since in many cases it is through giving that we receive and our work will always be to overcome our collective difficulties. 

This is the beginning of a comprehensive description of a kind of gun library, an arm within the organization that seeks to help members get back on their feet after being released from prison. The “assistance bank” 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.

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. 

In some cases the guns are available to members in prison, too. If a member on the outside seeks a gun that has already been borrowed, he must track down the borrower himself. For those on the inside, the process is more complex:

In the necessity that guns are needed to assist with a prison break, the brother making the request will be responsible for the return (whether he is on the street or in prison). This person should make direct contact with the assistance bank to clarify what type of weapons are needed, if the request is coming from inside, we ask that the brother responsible send a written note to the bank in a manner secure for both sides.

Even if the guns may be used in the commission of crimes—from street corner stickups to prison breaks—their loan comes with unequivocal regulations and stipulations. One does not just borrow an AK-47, even though they are available. Borrowers must demonstrate a reasonable need and show they have experience commensurate with the guns they request. As the document says, “no one requests a machine gun to stick up a car.”

To do so would fail to meet the leadership’s “principle of proportionality” at the heart of the organization’s ethic of crime. This principle is inviolable, as the 2011 statute lays bare:

When a cowardly act, an extermination or large extortion are confirmed, whether having occurred on the street or in the prison, on the part of our enemy, we will respond at the scale of crime. If a life is taken away in this manner by our enemies, the members registered in that “hood” (“quebrada”) must unite to respond with the treatment that they deserve. 
Life is paid with life!!!
Blood is paid with blood!!!

Almost biblical in its notion of punishment, this principle of proportionality is central to the PCC’s code. It allows the group to maintain equilibrium with the state in times of relative peace, when both sides look the other way or engage in only small-scale violence and extortion.

Similarly, in the “Assistance Bank” document a lot of space is given to the proportionality of consequences for replacing a lost, seized or stolen weapon:

In the unfortunate case of loss of the tool, the understanding of the family goes as far as the responsibility of the brother borrowing, that is, if the loss occurred in action and the brother ends up in prison, the bank responsible must evaluate and certify the authenticity of the event, if the bank evaluates and finds that the use of the tool was in keeping with the original borrowing agreement, and the jailed brother is in a favorable unit to make it happen, he will have one year to replace the gun or the value in cash of the gun. . .
In the case where the brother is jailed and transferred to a different unit, where it is not possible to do a run to cover the loss to the family, it is the responsibility of the brother to communicate directly to the unit leadership as well as the leadership of the assistance bank.
For brothers who know the destination of the brother before he does, the bank will decide the following: when it becomes possible to run errands in this unit, or the brother is transferred to another unit where it is possible, a count of one year begins for him to repay the family.
There will be no understanding any loss of the family’s guns because of weakness or failure of responsibility and if this type of situation occurs the bank in charge will evaluate if a broken promise and irresponsibility really happened, the borrowing brother will have to compensate the family for its loss within a maximum of thirty days, independent of the place where he finds himself, where the repayment does not occur within this period, the bank can take necessary measures, under the discipline of the family. . .
. . . in the hypothesis that the loss of the gun occurs with a fatality, those responsible in the assistance bank must investigate if the incident occurred as related and if confirmed the family will assume the loss of the gun clarifying that the bank will do all of the work necessary in cases where losses occurring during a confrontation and death with police and if necessary this work will continue with a tie (lawyer) as well.

We see here the degree of control and authority necessary to manage a system of gun borrowing that spans thousands of kilometers, transcends the walls of prisons and city limits, supersedes the reach of public security, and carries with it strict moral conditions. Highly bureaucratic and centralized, the gun library is just one among many similar PCC social policies. It exists alongside at least seven divisions of labor, including legal teams, bookkeeping, punishment, social assistance, drug trafficking, and an obligatory member raffle for cars and houses.

• • •

São Paulo’s political geography offers an important example of the power vacuums out of which groups such as the PCC emerge. An urban region with just shy of twenty million residents, São Paulo has become famous for both its cosmopolitan makeup and its global city status. It is Brazil’s primary economic engine, producing some 21 percent of the nation’s GDP. Rivaled only by Mexico City as the largest urban region in the Americas, São Paulo has a spatial configuration similar to that city, with wealth concentrated in central areas and poverty radiating outwards. Spread out and relatively flat as São Paulo is, the sheer scale of poverty and inequity often goes unrecognized, or dismissed, by those in corridors of relative wealth and power. Unlike the case in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, where pockets of informally built communities run up against the wealthiest areas, São Paulo’s distinction between urban formality and informality—the built for residents versus the built by residents—is less discernable to the untrained eye.

Scholars, though, have scrutinized São Paulo’s patterns of urbanization and the state-society relations that underwrite them. Although some areas of the city have benefitted from urban planning and public infrastructure—typically places where urban development is large or where significant wealth is concentrated—much of the rest of the city has been left to their own devices. Raquel Rolnik, a Professor at the University of São Paulo and now the United Nation’s Rapporteur on Housing, has estimated that 65 percent of the city was built informally. In many cases, services only arrived after residents mobilized and demanded them from political leaders.

Informal housing in São Paulo is roughly encapsulated by the term periferia, or “periphery.” It carries both spatial and social connotations in Portuguese, signifying a distance both geographic and political: a gap between citizen and state. It is also closely associated with urban violence. In the 1990s, the city’s homicide rate was inflated by startling numbers of murders in many periphery districts. Although wealthy areas maintained homicide rates near 2 or 3 per 100,000—right around the national homicide rate of Canada—some periphery districts exceeded 120 per 100,000. For men ages 15–29, some of the worst areas had homicide rates in excess of 300 per 100,000—well beyond the casualty rate of many wars, or even of Baghdad during the U.S. occupation in the mid-2000s. Most of these deaths are of young, dark-skinned men with little formal education, which has fostered a deeply divisive and derisive image about who and what is to be feared in this city.

• • •

To make sense of the explosion of groups like the PCC, commentators and some academics have been quick to latch onto alluring labels, from “violent entrepreneurs” and “drug traffickers” to “transnational criminal organizations.” Much of this work parallels Gambetta’s study of the economic bases of organized crime. Indeed the historical, political, and urban conditions of these groups are almost always understood as secondary to their economic motives. But it is shortsighted to think about violence solely in terms of economic costs or illicit economies—as rational choice theorists, prominent IFIs, and Washington policy makers are prone to do. There is more to the rise of violence in the Global South than the private accumulation of capital and the commodification of security and drugs.

Two broad schools of thought drive debate about what is truly at stake. The first sees the rise of crime as attributable to neoliberal reforms from the heyday of the Washington Consensus, which sought to eliminate red tape and disrupt corrupt bureaucrats. What happened, scholars argue, was a carving back of social services and a removal of important checks and balances. Informal communities became further marginalized. Jean and John Comaroff, for example, have argued in Law and Disorder in the Postcolony that as austerity reconfigures places like South Africa, violent groups arise that mimic the capitalist ways of the formal market. “Framed by neoliberal mechanisms of deregulation,” they write, “criminal violence does not so much repudiate the rule of law or the licit operations of the market as appropriate their forms, . . . thereby establishing simulacra of social order.” Similarly, in their book Securing the City: Neoliberalism, Space, and Insecurity in Postwar Guatemala, Kevin Lewis O’Neill and Kedron Thomas argue that “the structural and social changes that neoliberal policies have effected in Guatemala underlie the widespread economic, political, and physical insecurities that many urban and rural residents face.”

The PCC is an adaptation to insecurity and violence, made possible and necessary because of a dramatic failure of public institutions.

The second idea shifts the blame from neoliberal policies to the demise of American-backed Cold War national security states in the 1980s. As these states of authoritarian inquisition—defined by torture, disappearances, and repression—succumbed to pressures for democratically elected governments, one of the largest casualties was local police, many of whom had been absorbed in national security doctrines and practices. In cases like São Paulo, these police agencies—rightly distrusted—were left with evaporating resources, a changing and unclear mandate, new limits on their discretionary violence, and a rising wave of suspicion of their nefarious involvement in political repression. As Brazilians and others changed the bathwater of Cold War security they too often threw out the public security baby with it. A void—both spatial and political—emerged. The violent groups that have arisen in this context have been the focus of research by scholars such as Desmond Arias and Robert Gay. Arias, for example, writes: “If one considers violence as a measure of democratic failure—with greater levels of violence indicating a breakdown of democratic institutions and values—then Latin American democracies could be considered profoundly undemocratic.” This line of work is often skeptical of democratic justice, calling attention to the ways supposedly accountable political systems continue to stack the deck toward certain populations, to the acute detriment of others.

The crux of the matter lies somewhere between these two views: both neoliberal austerity and the failure of democratic institutions in post-authoritarian governments have their part to play in explaining urban violence. But a greater focus on urban informality is needed. Widespread exclusion certainly preceded global neoliberalism and democratic transition; we would be remiss not to recognize local processes of social and political marginality. And even though sword and shield groups have become particularly prominent in a neoliberal moment, their organizing rationale is not proto-capitalist. Many arose in response to incidents of traumatic violence—massacres, deportation, appalling prison conditions, gang feuds, or extrajudicial killings. Some have become highly bureaucratic and structured in their regulation of members and communities. They are at least as concerned with safety and security as they are with making money.

São Paulo’s marginalized communities, in particular, illustrate the costs of a shrinking state, as well as the effects of a distrusted public security system struggling reactively to control violence. The PCC is an adaptation to insecurity and violence, made possible—and for its members, necessary—because of a dramatic failure of public institutions. The communities suffering the most from the failure of police as a public institution are those which have historically been on the outskirts of the state.

• • •

If the library is knowledge as power, the PCC’s gun library is violence as power. It may institutionalize crime, but it also tightly regulates it. Prisons are less deadly. Homicides are down in communities the PCC controls, as they are in the city as a whole. São Paulo has become a global darling of “homicide reduction.” Residents of São Paulo’s periphery talk of never feeling safer. Just why, exactly, is the most salient, if disturbing, question.