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The Prison Issue

From a Tortured System

The story of how the state's self-defeating prison policies helped to create the mega-gangs of modern Brazil.

Illustrations by Matt Rota

It doesn't matter how often I do it, I always feel a slight weapons across Rio was one of many unintended consequences shudder when visiting a prison inmate. As soon as I walk through the first gate, I feel my capacity for autonomous action slipping away. Fingerprints, iris scans, patdowns, belts off, everything handed over—these processes rein- force the fear that, like a Gestapo headquarters, I may be entering a place which "is difficult to get into but much harder to leave". Am I exchanging my old world for a bit part in a macabre and surreal short story by Roald Dahl?


In March 2013, my anxiety levels were more elevated than usual as I was set to enter a Brazilian prison for the first time. I had heard a lot about how frightening life inside these jails was and I was bracing myself for a difficult experience.

On this occasion, I was proved wrong. The penitentiary in Campo Grande, close to the border with Bolivia and Paraguay, is a Maximum Security Federal prison, one of four special facilities built in some of the farthest-flung parts of this vast country. They house the country's most notorious or celebrated (depending on how you look at them) criminals—killers, major drug dealers, the bosses of the enormously powerful and well-armed syndicates that penetrate illicit trades from cocaine to logging and kidnapping.

The notoriety of the prisoners is the chief reason for the jail's unusually efficient administration. In the past, the great bank rob- bers and drug cartel leaders would happily continue their work after incarceration from inside prison. In the provincial and municipal facilities it is standard practice to bribe the poorly remunerated guards to turn a blind eye to smuggled mobile phones, to drugs, to video game consoles and televisions, or to women brought in for sex. Most of Brazil's chronically overcrowded prisons suffer from a lack of resources. They are understaffed and those who do work there are underpaid, leading to corruption and high levels of vio- lence. The cell bars and high walls do not hinder the continuation of feuds and vendettas from the outside—knives and even guns are regularly whipped out from under mattresses.


But by contrast, not a single escape, nor a single murder, has occurred in the four Maximum Security jails since the first was opened in 2006, although one lawyer did point out to me that two men "have been suicided" in that time.

It hasn't stopped the inmates sending their messages through family members or bent lawyers, but they can no longer do it from the comfort of their smartphones.

The man I had come to visit was Nem, Rio's Public Enemy No. 1 until his arrest in November 2011. He was wearing the penitentiary's regulation blue t-shirt and cotton trousers. When he stood to be led out of the room, I could see that he was tall and thin, maybe six foot two. He was brown-skinned, with a distinc- tive narrow face and a slight overbite. His hair was cut short, so the curls that were so familiar from the two most common im- ages circulating around the internet were not in evidence. Most arresting of all were his jet-black eyes, so dark that the irises and pupils appeared to merge. It was immediately obvious that these eyes were the primary source of his physical charisma: they could look into your soul but they gave nothing back.

Over the next few years as I researched the life of Nem, I began to understand that beyond the obvious clichés of football, samba and sex, the history of Brazil's prisons explains a great deal about the chronic problems of violence and insecurity that confront the whole country. The origins and culture of the mighty organised criminal syndicates, in particular Comando Vermelho, Red Command, in Rio and the PCC in São Paulo (the largest in all South America) are woven through the history of two prisons in particular.


Red Command's roots go back four decades, a weird subplot of one of the Cold War's chilliest phases. For this now-fabled crimi- nal syndicate that flaunts its stocks of coke and semi-automatic spawned by Brazil's military dictatorship after it seized power on 1 April 1964. This was just after the Cuban Missile Crisis and hysterical American commentators were warning darkly about Brazil becoming the next China. So with enthusiastic backing from the US government, and the promise of an American invasion if the generals bungled their coup, Brazil signed up to the sad South American tradition of military intervention.

Armed resistance grew steadily and the young guerrilla fighters proved to be daring and dogged. The military hit back and in 1969, members of Brazil's most prominent insurgent organisations, the MR-8 from Rio and the Aliança Libertadora Nacional (ALN) with its main base in São Paulo, started arriving in one of the most beautiful settings in Brazil—Ilha Grande.

A hundred kilometres south of Rio, this paradise island lies an hour's slow boat ride across the water from the former royal vacation spot, Angra dos Reis. When I arrived on Ilha Grande for the first time, I found it impossible to reconcile the gorgeous semi-tropical surroundings with its grizzly history. Over a 300-year period slaves arriving from West Africa would be dumped on Ilha Grande for a period of quarantine. Walk down from Abraão, the main village, and you quickly come across square holes built into stone with iron bars across them. This is where sick or recalcitrant slaves were bent double and forced to await their fate (usually death) for weeks staring at a beautiful beach and inviting sea.


But for the underground fighters of MR-8 and ALN, the final destination was a gorgeous sandy cove to the south of the island lapped by the blue-green waters of the southern Atlantic.

They had not, of course, come for recreation and a rest from their revolutionary activities. Set back from the beach was a building that looked like a stunted offspring of Colditz, the Nazi prisoner of war camp. Successive Brazilian governments had contrived to make the penal institute Cândido Mendes appear ever less appeal- ing since it was first opened at the turn of the twentieth century. By now the most notorious prison in the country, it proclaimed a gruesome slogan as a warning to the incarcerated: O preso foge, o tubarão come—the prisoner flees, the shark eats.

"It had been the fate of this beautiful place for a long time to be associated with human suffering," wrote William da Silva Lima, one of the prison's most celebrated inmates from the 1970s, as he entered the forbidding edifice for the first time. Slaves, cholera victims, muti- neers and anti-fascists had all been dumped here to rot at one point or another. "The atmosphere was dominated by fear and suspicion, not only fear of the guards' violence but also of the acts carried out by the gangs of prisoners to rob, rape and kill their companions."

Prisoners forced to work in the burning sun were eaten alive by oversized bugs and mosquitoes while the monotonous diet of manioc and the occasional bean dish provoked teeth to fall out and skin to wither. The guards were at liberty to administer beatings and single out individuals for torture sessions at will. The most common condition afflicting the inmates was insanity.


The two revolutionary groups, the MR-8 and the ALN, derived their notoriety from their collaborative success in kidnapping the US ambassador to Brazil. They were also feted in the underground, and indeed by left-wing activists across the world, for their highly successful and lucrative bank robberies, which financed their armed resistance to the generals.

Notwithstanding the generals' wish to paint them as ordinary criminals, the governor of Cândido Mendes prison placed the politicos in a separate part of Unit B, where their new neighbours included a group of the most hardened armed robbers that Rio could muster. Among them was William da Silva Lima. Although from a favela, he was known as the Professor for his love of books. His own remarkable memoir, written in prison, details the organisational lessons the young intellectuals behind MR-8 and ALN offered to the criminals.

When the guerrillas robbed a bank, they left as little to chance as possible. The team undertaking the actual raid would be supported by a back-up brigade of comrades stationed in disguise around the bank. Should law enforcement pitch up, they would effectively be walking into a heavily armed trap, enabling the escape of those looting the cash. The group always ensured that the getaway cars were stolen just a few hours before the event so that they hadn't yet been registered as missing. Safe houses were prepared to assist the team's flight and to store the cash. And they always had a doctor (usually a medical student) on standby to operate on anyone who might have picked up an injury during the raid.


Initially sceptical of their fellow inmates, who were keen to stress their political status, the favela bank robbers gradually came to ad- mire the dedication and above all the organisation of the guerrillas.

For a man who made his living through robbery, the Professor was unusually politically aware. Even such renowned villains as he were impressed by this level of organisation, and soon the revolu- tionaries were passing around the works of Che Guevara and the young French Marxist Régis Debray among the thieves and armed robbers. In 1971, eight of them formed the Union Group, which they soon rebaptised Red Falange, before finally settling on Red Command—often identified simply by its initials in Portuguese, CV.

When the criminals returned to the streets in the mid-80s, they did so not only with an ideological motive for their activities—they were now thieving in the name of social justice—but also with a new hierarchical structure. Authority was derived primarily from prison experience: the longer a man's sentence and the more frequent his successful attempts at escape, the more influence he could claim in the organisation.

In the early 70s, there was one division inside the Cândido Mendes penitentiary—a second group of toughs that refused to recognise the authority of the original Red Command leadership. Known as the Alligators, they formed a new organisation, O Terceiro Comando—the Third Command—which during the 90s would contest the power of Red Command in a series of fearful internecine battles. To this day, you can spot a Third Command favela by the graffiti depicting alligators armed to the teeth.


The birth of these gangs prefaced an enormous change in the life of favelas. Traditional structures of power and respect would be swept away by one of the most powerful social forces Brazil had ever witnessed—the traffickers.

From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, Rio de Janeiro became the centre of violence in Brazil as profits from the cocaine trade enabled Red Command and Third Command to invest in heavy weaponry. By 1991, they were regularly outgunning the police. It became one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Although much bigger than Rio, São Paulo was slow on the up- take. But although delayed, the introduction of cocaine into São Paulo did indeed trigger a dramatic increase in violence, which eventually was comparable to, if not greater than, the bloodbath in Rio. Wealthy Paulistas enjoyed an advantage over their Rio counterparts by dint of the two cities' differing geography. São Paulo is much less hilly than Rio, so when the great labour immigration from the northeast of the country accelerated from the 50s onwards, the new labour force did not populate the empty spaces right in the heart of the city by the coast as they had done in Rio. Instead, their communities grew up as part of a flat urban sprawl much further away from the city centre and the core residential and business districts of São Paulo.

As in Rio, most of the violence associated with the drugs trade was concentrated in the favelas. But as these were situated on the periphery, the middle and upper classes of São Paulo were less exposed to daily violence, particularly that involving firearms.


To begin with São Paulo's violence was messy and unpredict- able, but the events in one prison, Carandiru, changed everything.

After entering Pavilion 9, these officers engaged in an orgy of destruction and violence that would have made Caligula wince. They did not stop to ascertain who might have been responsible for the riot. They simply started murdering prisoners.

Conditions in São Paulo's largest jail were so atrocious that it was always close to boiling over. At any one time, it housed between 7,000 to 9,000 prisoners, almost triple the number it was designed to accommodate. Spending a day in Carandiru was challenge enough, but to be incarcerated there for years led most of the prisoners to the very edge of their sanity.

On the afternoon of October 2, 1992, a dispute between two prisoners got out of hand and turned into a general brawl in Pavilion 9, where some 2,000 prisoners lived. Within a couple of hours, the governor of São Paulo state had authorised the dispatch of a heavily armed battalion of the military police into the prison.

Part of the force was made up of troops from ROTA, a special forces brigade that operates in São Paulo alone. The police in São Paulo have a saying: Deus faz, mae cria, ROTA mata—God cre- ates, mother raises, ROTA kills.

After entering Pavilion 9, these officers engaged in an orgy of destruction and violence that would have made Caligula wince. They did not stop to ascertain who might have been responsible for the riot. They simply started murdering prisoners. They fired machine guns at any inmate they came across (most, of course, in highly confined spaces), they set killer dogs on them or they forced them to run the gauntlet while bringing down rifle and pistol butts on their heads. One prisoner cowering in a tiny cell with 12 others provided some grim testimony:


A police opened the little sliding window on the cell door, stuck his machine gun through it and screamed, "Surprise, the devil is here to take you all to hell!" He let off two bursts of gunfire, here one, there one. The tiny cell was full of smoke and it stunk of gunpowder. I only noticed I was still alive when I felt a hot liquid drip onto my back. It was blood and at first I thought it was mine. I looked at my fellow inmates, obscured by smoke, riddled with bullets, and blood around their mouths. Eleven died. Only I and one other were to escape.

One hundred and eleven inmates of Carandiru died that day. Countless others were injured. There was not a single police casualty. The following year the governor of Carandiru prison was given a new posting to São Paulo's high-security prison, Taubaté, which housed a number of criminals who had been in Carandiru during the massacre. Partly in protest at the presence of the governor who they considered culpable for the massacre, eight of the most influ- ential prisoners produced an extraordinary document that clearly draws upon the rhetoric of civil society and human rights groups: The Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), founded in 1993 dur- ing a tireless and formidable fight against oppression and injustice in the concentration camps that are Carandiru and Taubaté, has as its absolute focus liberty, justice and peace. We will stay organised and united to avoid a massacre such as, or worse than, that which happened in Carandiru, on October 2, 1992 where 111 inmates were cowardly murdered in a massacre that will never be forgotten by the Brazilian conscience.

In its first few years, the PCC spread through the jails of São Paulo and its main focus was indeed to ameliorate the conditions of those men in prison by raising money from supporters outside, and assisting the families suffering hardship as a consequence of the incarceration. Before long, however, the PCC started organis- ing itself in the favelas, albeit always controlled from within the prisons. At an early stage of the group's existence, prison authorities had dispersed the original leadership into prisons across São Paulo state. The impact was to accelerate the spread of the organisation through the criminal world.

Later on, Red Command claimed credit for having guided the PCC leadership in its earliest phases and certainly the rhetoric of the São Paulo organisation mirrored Red Command's early strategy of projecting an image of social liberation for the favelas.

Within five years, much of the criminal activity of São Paulo— above all of course the drugs trade but also bank heists, burglary and other crimes against property—was under the firm direction of the PCC. A strict set of rules was introduced whereby members of the PCC had to pay a monthly subscription. Failure to make payments resulted in punishment, including execution. In contrast to the more cavalier attitude of the Rio gangs, the PCC, true to its Paulista origins, has always kept meticulous records of its incom- ings and outgoings. On those occasions when these computerised lists have fallen into the hands of public prosecutors, it makes it much easier to reconstruct both the PCC's financial activity and its membership structure.

In stark contrast to the development of factional violence and competition in Rio, there were no serious challengers within the criminal world to the PCC. Before long not only was it control- ling the underworld of São Paulo state, but it had also started to spread to other states in Brazil and, of course, established liaison offices in Paraguay, Bolivia and Colombia. It was on its way to becoming the largest, best organised and most lucrative criminal syndicate anywhere in the Americas, including Mexico.

One territory which it made no attempt to infiltrate was Rio de Janeiro. "My feeling is the PCC took one look at the mess between the factions here in Rio and said to itself, 'Thanks, but no thanks—I don't think we need to get bogged down in that mess,'" one Rio police intelligence officer told me.

They did, however, establish cordial links with Red Command and as the PCC's country-wide operations began to expand so did their ability to increase their influence over the wholesale market for Brazil in general. But although Red Command retained its dominant position over the drugs trade in Rio, the newly formed ADA and its allies in the Third Command were providing real competition. Even within the Red Command favelas, there were some tensions as the various local bosses tried to fight for more autonomy from the Red Command's leadership.

Red Command and the PCC dominate the life of Rio and São Paulo respectively. The leaderships of the two organisations are incarcerated across the country but are still able to run their criminal fiefdoms. In the case of the PCC, this is utterly remark- able as it is estimated to have some 130,000 members across the country and in Brazil's neighbours. Without Brazil's tortured prison system, neither group could ever have attained the strength they currently boast.

Parts of this piece are adapted from Misha's new book, Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio.