So-Called Liberty, Justice and Peace, per the PCC, in São Paulo

It’s not a misnomer to call the PCC, the First Capital Command (or First Command of the Capital — PCC) and anyone involved with it a criminal. Criminal is by far the best word you can use to describe a group that got its start in jail, and whose members are, for the most part, incarcerated. And yet it’s from behind prison bars that the PCC has managed to coordinate a series of violent attacks, in all likelihood the most violent São Paulo has seen in recent history. With so much power in the hands of criminals it’s the population at large that suffers.

Harming civilians isn’t the group’s goal though — or so they stated in August 2006, amid the third major wave of violence — in a video recording (see below — in Portugese) emphasizing that theirs is strictly a war against the police and the government. It goes back to the group’s inception in 1993. The PCC was supposed to bring prisoners together to present a united front against the poor conditions, injustices, and mistreatment they were subjected to in jail. The year before had seen a bloodbath when the police killed 111 inmates during a riot in a state penitentiary.

The group’s appeal for better conditions is certainly valid. There’s no doubt that the Brazilian prison system is inadequate. Jails are filled over capacity and continue to take in more prisoners every day and these people have every right not to be treated, as they put it, like animals. Combine the lack of space with the lack of infrastructure (the first federal maximum-security penitentiary was just opened this year) and it’s a surefire recipe for disaster.

It’s a well known fact here in Brazil that many of the people in jail shouldn’t be there, for instance, a number of prisoners have already served their sentences but the lack of organization keeps them well beyond their terms. Men who went to jail for petty crimes leave as hardened criminals after spending time with and learning from more serious offenders. The penal system has to undergo serious reform, but what really drives the PCC isn’t better living conditions — the group has more self-serving goals.

Take the first wave of violence that afflicted São Paulo on 12 May of this year. By all accounts the prison riots were ordered by group leader Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho (Marcola) in response to the government’s decision to transfer him, and several other PCC members regarded as dangerous inmates, to a maximum-security prison. Marcola was to be put under the “Regime Disciplinar Diferenciado” (RDD), a sort of solitary confinement where the prisoner only gets two hours for a sunbath per day and no access to newspapers or television. The idea is to restrict the inmates’ contact with the outside world. In their protest against the RDD, the PCC has only shown how important stricter measures really are. For heaven’s sake, the riots were planned and ordered using cell phones from within jail cells!

The PCC used cell phones to orchestrate prison riots in over 20 prisons, as well as to orchestrate the murders of cops and penitentiary agents — a move that’s clearly directed at the penal system. But claims that this war is strictly between the PCC and the authorities are incredible. The moment the PCC mobilized their crew on the outside (a mix of released prisoners, escapees, family members and others who chose to join the PCC) and took their violence to the streets. Even if their target was the police, it turned into a war against society as a whole. Remember that taped video message? Curious as to how the PCC got it broadcast on Brazil’s highest-rated TV network? All they had to do was kidnap two of the network’s employees, and in the process, threaten to kill a reporter.

The first attacks in May were marked by prison riots, but subsequent attacks in July and August were marked by shootings and bombings on the streets. Some of the targets were once again part of the penal system: police stations, officers, justice forums. And despite its declarations that harming civilians is not its “goal”, the PCC extended its violence directly toward civilians. Buses have been set on fire, banks, supermarkets and gas stations bombed. It’d be easy to assume that attacks on banks would be designed to raise money, but the group just set fire or bombed the banks and left the scene without robbing them. The PCC does very well, monetarily speaking, with its drug trafficking. These attacks weren’t just about financing their activities; they were about destruction of society and getting in the way of the daily life of the average citizen.

Obviously, to get in the way of daily life the PCC needs people operating on the outside, too. Phone centers connecting prisoners to members of the PCC on the outside are typically run by prisoner’s family members, usually women, who want to help loved ones. With tighter surveillance on their imprisoned husbands, women have begun to take a more active role in planning and ordering attacks (but not the execution of the act itself). The men on the outside are of better use out in the field, dealing drugs.

For a young man to join the PCC, he has to be introduced by a current member. Members reportedly pay monthly fees of 50 reais if they’re in jail and 500 reais otherwise (that’s more than the current minimum wage of 350 reais or approximately $160US). In spite of the high membership fees, many people living in poor areas, or favelas, are drawn to the PCC because they can earn a living by participating in the lucrative drug business. A couple of people arrested in connection with the attacks weren’t even members of the PCC but simply young men who aspired to join, trying to impress the group. The bulk of the gang members on the outside world are ex-cons, though. The PCC demands loyalty: once a member, always a member. The group’s statute determines that if a free member forgets to contribute to his brothers on the inside he will be sentenced to “death without forgiveness“.

Being a member of the PCC gives one status and respect — everyone in the community knows who they are. The women fight over men in the PCC and they don’t mind if they’re men are not in an exclusive relationship. The women just want to feel safe — no one’s going to mess with a PCCer’s woman — they and their children will have food and shelter. They’ll be taken care of by members of the PCC where the State fails to provide. In another measure of the group’s popularity, a pirated CD called “Funk PCC 2006” has been a hot seller for camelôs (illegal street vendors). The songs are about drugs, violence, and killings but oddly enough they are not about the PCC. Rather, the criminal organization represented here is Comando Vermelho, the PCC’s (much older and now substantially less powerful) ally in Rio de Janeiro. Still, the CD is sought after in São Paulo just for it’s “cool factor” of seeming like it’s really about the PCC.

There are relatively few people who think the PCC is actually a good thing, though. Yes, it is popular among some in favelas, but not all. Favelas might be home to criminals but that doesn’t make everyone living in a favela a criminal. Some don’t like the fact that the PCC is doing business in their community but they have no recourse, all they can do is go on with their own lives as best they can. More people have been harmed by than benefited from the group’s actions. And it’s the poorest, the working class, who bear the brunt of the assault. In may of this year the PCC set fire to buses and several companies refused to send more buses out until the attacks had diminished; it is precisely the poorer part of the population who relied upon public transportation to get to their jobs. The buses that did run were crammed, their doors opened and the passengers hanging on as best they could from the boarding steps. Bus drivers skipped stops because there just wasn’t enough space and yet people would run after buses and if they caught them, leaping on and struggling for any inch of hold-on space they could get.

São Paulo’s always been a violent city. When I lived there six years ago some of the kids I went to school with, those from family of means, anyway, had bodyguards to thwart potential kidnapping. Bulletproofing cars was a relatively common practice among the middle and upper classes to deter carjackings. This past July, amid the second wave of violence, I was back in the city for a couple of days. While I didn’t witness any violence I saw a population that was, clearly, more reticent.

Stopping at a coffee shop off the street in Moema, a relatively quiet middle to upper class neighborhood on a Thursday afternoon, I was surprised when the cashier turned me down until he explained that there hadn’t been enough customers all day and he had no change at that time. Around noon that day I went to Avenida Faria Lima, a thriving business center and home to a number of office buildings. The taxi driver who took me there would slow down and point out all the restaurants that would usually be packed by that time but simply chose not to open.

Restaurants weren’t the only businesses to suffer; several schools, malls, banks and supermarkets followed suit and closed their doors. Throughout the attacks a lot of people avoided leaving their homes unless it was absolutely necessary. In May, when the attacks first hit, there were rumors of state-wide curfews flying about, propagated by TV stations. Even after the government dismissed those rumors people chose to stay inside. Self-imposed curfews left entire neighborhoods empty at night — a rare occurrence in a city where many neighborhoods are a mix of commercial and residential, where shops, restaurants and bars are open late and people can be seen walking the streets at all hours, day or night. It doesn’t matter that the PCC isn’t, it claims, out to shoot civilians — the threat of getting caught in the crossfire is still there.

It’s certainly ironic that among the 16 items on the PCC’s statute — which in a “all for one, one for all” spirit states members should unite to fight against injustices, never fight amongst themselves and never betray one another — is a call for the fight for liberty, justice and peace. Meanwhile, their “open battle” with police has left a terrorized civilian population. The PCC has generated an urban war to fight for better conditions for their members in prison — including demanding cell phones, which make it easier for them to carry on with their criminal activities outside of prison walls. Some justice.