Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) is a Brazilian criminal organisation. The gang is inspired by Comando Vermelho, one of its main rivals. Both criminal organisations were formed by prisoners who organised groups to defend themselves in Brazil’s violent prison system. The PCC emerged in São Paulo during the 1990s and has waged a bloody battle for dominance throughout the country.
The PCC is considered the largest and best-organised criminal organisation in Brazil. The group is believed to have members in most of the country’s states. Furthermore, the PCC has expanded its operations abroad, both in South American countries and in Europe and Asia.
This article analyses the history and organisation of this gang, as well as its recruitment, weapons, and most relevant criminal activity.
2.0 History and Mission of PCC
2.1 The Origins of the PCC
The PCC was founded on 31 August 1993 by eight inmates in the annexe of the Taubaté House of Custody, known as “Piranhão”. The prison is located 130 kilometres from the city of São Paulo and is considered the most secure in the state. At first, the PCC was known as the “Crime Party”. They claimed that it wanted to fight oppression within the São Paulo prison system and avenge the deaths of the one hundred and eleven prisoners killed on 2 October 1992 in the “Carandiru massacre”. This happened after the Military Police killed 111 inmates in Pavilion 9 of the now-defunct São Paulo House of Detention. The group used the Chinese symbol of the yin-yang balance in black and white. It is considered “a way of balancing good and evil with wisdom”.
At first, the PCC, also called 15.3.3 due to the order of the letters in the alphabet, limited itself to organising riots to demand improved detention conditions.
The first public reports on the existence of the PCC came from journalist Fatima Souza in 1997, although the São Paulo government consistently denied the group’s existence. In 1999, the group carried out the largest bank robbery in São Paulo’s history, stealing some US$32 million.
2.2 Comando Vermelho and Revolutionism
The group, whose existence the government denied although it had emerged eight years earlier (in 1993), only became nationally known with the prison riots of the 2000s and the 2001 mega-rebellion involving 29 prisons, in reprisal for the transfer of the group’s main leaders. This was organised by the then leader of the PCC Idemir “Sombra” (Shadow) Carlos Ambrósio.
In the following years, the government proceeded to separate PCC leaders, transferring them to prisons around the country. However, this allowed the gang to strengthen its links with other criminal groups and further spread its ideas.
Around the early 2000s, the PCC began to express solidarity with another prison gang, the Red Command (Comando Vermelho, CV). They also originated in Brazilian prisons during the 1970s. They then adopted its slogan of “peace, justice and freedom”, and started advocating revolution and the destruction of the capitalist system.
With this change in doctrine, the PCC began to carry out attacks on public buildings as another tool for exerting pressure. In the 2000s, his ambition became to take control of organised crime, especially drug trafficking.
The leadership of the PCC changed in November 2002, when the group was taken over by the current leader of the organisation, Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, “Marcola”, also called “Playboy”.
2.3 Escalating Violence and Consolidation
In 2006, the PCC staged an even bigger rebellion in protest at the transfer of its members to distant facilities. Incarcerated gang members seized more than 70 prisons across the country and held some visitors hostage. Simultaneously, the group carried out coordinated attacks outside the prisons, mostly in São Paulo, which left 150 people dead.
In subsequent years, the PCC grew in power and sophistication. This was thanks to a supposed truce with the São Paulo police and its ability to conduct business virtually unimpeded in Brazil’s impoverished prisons. In the early 2010s, the group began to expand abroad. They started setting up drug and arms trafficking operations in neighbouring countries such as Bolivia and Paraguay.
For instance, in late 2012, São Paulo’s public security secretary was forced to resign after a series of violent clashes between the police and the PCC. This was allegedly in response to the authorities’ escalating actions against the gang, which violated the truce.
During the early 2010s, the PCC also made attempts to influence politics in São Paulo state. As it increased its revenues and membership, the gang began to emerge as the most powerful criminal organisation in Brazil.
2.4 Armed Violence
In the second half of the decade, the PCC began to commit increasingly violent acts. The group was found guilty of a series of armed robberies in Paraguay in 2015. In early 2016, a video surfaced online showing the beheading of a teenager. This was allegedly in connection with a feud between the PCC and its one-time ally, the First Catarinense Group (Primeiro Grupo da Catarinense, PGC).
In late 2016, the PCC’s long-standing truce with the CV ended. This sparked a series of prison riots over several months that left hundreds of people dead. Authorities linked this outbreak of violence to clashes between the two groups over control of lucrative drug trafficking routes through the remote Amazon region in northern Brazil. There are also some reports that the PCC was seeking to confront the CV in Rio de Janeiro, its traditional territory. Simultaneously, they were repelling attacks by a rival group in São Paulo state, which contributed to the escalation of violence there.
In 2017, the PCC was reportedly in expansion mode. The group was linked to international drug shipments passing through Uruguay, as well as kidnappings and robberies in Bolivia. They also attempted to recruit dissidents from the demobilised Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The PCC was also found guilty of a series of murders allegedly linked to the drug trafficking conflict in Paraguay. In April 2017, the gang allegedly carried out the largest armed robbery in Paraguayan history (source). The Spanish security company Prosegur located in Ciudad del Este, on the Triple Border of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, was attacked by a group of at least 30 men carrying high-calibre firearms (source). As the modus operandi was similar to previous robberies in Campinas, Ribeirão Preto and Santos in 2015 and 2016, authorities believed the main suspect to be the PCC, but it was never confirmed (source).
The fallout from the breakdown of the truce between the PCC and the Red Command continued to generate violence in early 2018. This is because the PCC appeared unwilling to abandon its ongoing campaign of national and international expansion.
3.0 Rivalries and Alliances
The PCC has established pacts and feuds with the various groups depending on their area of operation (source).
- Terceiro Comando.
- Comando Vermelho.
- Família do Norte.
- Clan Rotela.
- Brazilian Militias.
- Amigos dos Amigos.
- Terceiro Comando Puro.
- Guardiões do Estado.
- Os Manos.
- Tren de Aragua.
The PCC has around 30,000 members in 22 of Brazil’s 27 states, as well as neighbouring countries such as Bolivia, Paraguay and Colombia. The criminal faction maintains its main activities in the state of São Paulo. Here there are around 8,000 of its members in 90 per cent of São Paulo’s prisons.
The PCC forms a broad network of criminals that is divided into a political and an economic arm. On the political side, it acts as a “regulatory power” that has created “statutes” that systematise ethics and relations between its members, who pay monthly fees.
The PCC is organised around a strong independent local leadership that operates through a franchise system, rather than relying on a top-down hierarchy. The group therefore does not have an organised structure, but rather a “methodology of life” for its members.
However, members of the organisation are charged dues, which are used to pay lawyers, buy police and prison guards, and purchase drugs and weapons. This decentralised command structure has made it difficult for security agencies to deal with the organisation.
Two of the founding members of the PCC, Jose Marcio Felicio, alias “Geleião”, and César Augusto Roriz da Silva, alias “Cesinha”, were expelled from the organisation in 2002. They then founded a rival organisation, the Third Capital Command (TCC).
According to Brazilian police, Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, alias “Marcola”, serves as the top leader, operating from prison. He is currently serving a two-decade sentence for drug trafficking. Second-in-command, Abel Pacheco, alias “Vida Loka”, is in prison while awaiting trial on murder charges.
A 2018 report by Brazil’s Federal Police described the gang as being run at the highest level by a group of powerful regional leaders, many of whom are imprisoned.
The PCC enforces its code of justice, prohibits crack in the prisons it controls, regulates drug prices in São Paulo and claims to be behind the dramatic drop in murders over the past two decades in the megalopolis.
Initially, the PCC adopted a nationalisation strategy to control international drug and arms trafficking routes. The PCC therefore favoured territorial control and baptism, which includes the imposition of actions and a hierarchy (source). According to some experts, this has recently changed to ‘franchise’ alliances. This involves a partnership but does not require complete subordination (source).
The PCC also controls drug trafficking routes from production to placement in ports across the Atlantic. European or African allies take the final step, which is to bring it to Europe (source).
On the political side, the group has created a discourse of unity among thieves – “crime strengthens crime” – and of confrontation with the “oppressive state”. The PCC Statute is a list of principles of the criminal organisation. Through their statutes and salves (“salve geral”), they define the ethics and way of relating among those who work in the criminal world. For instance, Item 7 of the document states that “structured” and free members must contribute to other imprisoned members on pain of “being condemned to death, without pardon”.
The group functions as a regulatory agency for the São Paulo criminal market. It also offers help to its members and their families. The leadership’s control and authority stem mainly from the fact that they dominate the absolute majority of São Paulo’s prisons. Those who disobey the rules of crime have to answer to the leadership when they serve their sentences. Therefore they prefer to obey in order not to be sent to the “seguro”, as the neutral units or isolated cells are known.
The statute preaches “loyalty, respect and solidarity” to the members of the group. It also preaches a struggle for “freedom, justice and peace”. They also call for better conditions in the Brazilian prison system (especially in São Paulo). They claim that prisoners suffer torture and inhumane acts.
On the economic side, the PCC has a “legal entity”, which operates in the criminal market under the PCC brand and whose earnings go towards financing the faction’s activities. For example jumbo (food taken by relatives), transport, basic food baskets, financing robberies, weapons, etc. Some data indicates that members must pay a monthly membership fee of $16 if they are imprisoned, and $320 if they are free. The punishment for not collaborating with the organisation or with one of the “brothers” (as they call each other) is “death without pardon” (source).
On the other hand, the members of the group, who pay monthly fees, can have their earnings and follow their paths, as long as they don’t interfere with the group’s or their brothers’ business. These personal businesses of PCC members generate even more funds than the faction. The greater the number of partners and the wider the network, the more everyone tends to earn. The level of the drug business changed when the PCC reached the borders and began to operate in wholesale trafficking. The greater the number of partners in the states, the greater the profits.
Some researchers estimate its turnover at $40 million a year. In addition to the sale of cocaine and marijuana, it is also financed through bank robbery (source).
The PCC has followed an expansionist dynamic, promoting alliances but also rivalries, managing to sell drugs as “individuals” or “companies” throughout Brazil, transforming the national crime scene.
The PCC is based in São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous and economically important state. However, it has a presence throughout the country. Today it is estimated to be present in 90% of São Paulo’s prisons, in 22 of Brazil’s 27 states (source).
In recent years, the PCC has expanded its activities internationally. It has developed operations in almost every country in South America, as well as establishing links with European criminal groups. It is believed that they are present in the border regions of Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina and Colombia. Paraguay has also become an important stronghold for the Brazilian organisation (source).
4.0 Recruitment and Cooperation with Other Criminal Groups
The PCC is entered by invitation of at least two members who will be the godparents of the baptised. The group looks for candidates with certain skills, being the main one with an enormous power of persuasion. In addition to this, they also value good oratory and a track record of loyalty to crime. At the baptism ceremony, they promise that brotherhood will be above all else.
Although in recent years the band has opened the door to women, there are still few of them because it is very difficult to make their own space in such a strongly male-dominated world. The interest in including them went so far as to organise a campaign offering to exempt them from paying the monthly fee if they were baptised.
4.2 Alliance with Hezbollah
According to the Brazilian Federal Police, the PCC maintains commercial ties with the Lebanese organisation and militant group Hezbollah, particularly in illegal cigarette trafficking, arms trafficking, and money laundering operations. Cooperation between the two organisations takes place mostly in the Triple Frontier region of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.
4.3 Alliance with ‘Ndrangheta
According to Europol and the Brazilian Federal Police, the PCC has ties to the ‘Ndrangheta, considered the most vicious group of the Italian Mafia and the wealthiest and most powerful criminal syndicate in the West (source).
These ties were uncovered with the arrests of high-ranking ‘Ndrangheta bosses and members in Brazil, such as Rocco Morabito (known as the “Cocaine King of Milan”), cousin of Giuseppe Morabito (one of the most powerful ‘Ndrangheta bosses) and one of the organization’s principal cocaine traffickers (source).
According to investigations, Morabito is one of the key associates of André Macedo Oliveira (nicknamed “André do Rap”), one of the PCC’s current leaders and one of Latin America’s most violent drug barons (source).
4.4 Cooperation with FARC
In the context of this escalating violence, it emerged that the PCC was recruiting members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to extend its drug trafficking networks throughout Latin America.
According to Lincoln Gakiya, a prosecutor who has been investigating the group for ten years, “the PCC is obsessed with getting military training”. The attack in Ciudad del Este seems to indicate that they finally achieved this, given the high professionalism of the attackers.
5.0 Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs)
The PCC has been involved in a variety of criminal activities since its formation, including:
- prison escapes
- prison riots
- drug trafficking
- bank robberies
- highway robberies
- protection rackets
- kidnapping for ransom
- money laundering
- obstruction of justice
As its criminal record shows, the group has used coordinated waves of violence often in the shape of riots and shootings, both inside and outside prison. These attacks mostly target security forces and occasionally, rival groups. Attacks are often organised and carried out, as happened in the 2006 attacks, by imprisoned gang members via mobile phones (source).
5.2 Strategic planning
The PCC now operates as a franchise system, similar to that of the Zetas cartel in Mexico, in which it rents or lends its name to local criminal organisations. This I because the group understands that local knowledge is very important. According to Misha Glenny, former BBC war correspondent, it is difficult for an outside organisation to come with its people to a new urban area to start something like a protection racket. Or start trafficking women or drugs. They therefore need the locals.
The local groups understand that the name of the PCC, los Chechenes or Los Zetas gives them credibility. And above all, it gives them the fear factor, that is, the threat that you can exercise violence. The PCC knows that, as any large criminal group must, they must be able to project fear. The PCC applies this strategy both on rival gangs and against government forces.
When the PCC wants to give an order for its members to carry out a criminal act, it uses the words “salve geral” (“Save yourselves all”, as in “salves” or religious greetings).
Furthermore, when a member of the group makes a mistake, the group does not refer to “judgment” or “punishment”, but “consequences”. These “consequences” are carried out on behalf of the PCC and not the people who are carrying out the punishment.
According to visual evidence, the PCC has made use of different types of weapons. From bladed weapons such as knives and machetes to firearms such as pistols and assault rifles. In addition, in their large-scale attacks, they have also made use of grenades and explosives.
In 2018, the publication of a wiretap recording the conversation between two PCC leaders, imprisoned in São Paulo and Roraima prisons, revealed the negotiation for the purchase of AK-47 and AR-15 rifles from Venezuela (source).
Moreover, in 2021, the Brazilian authorities seized two 7.62 calibre rifles, three 9 millimetre pistols and three 38 calibre revolvers from eight members of the PCC (source).
7.0 Notable Activity
The PCC has been involved in several episodes of national importance. The main ones are:
7.1 2001 attacks
In February 2001, Idemir “Sombra” (Shadow) Carlos Ambrósio became the organisation’s most vocal leader by coordinating, via mobile phone, simultaneous rebellions in 29 São Paulo prisons, which resulted in the deaths of 16 prisoners.
7.2 Foiled 2002 attack
In October 2002, the São Paulo Civil Police revealed, after an investigation, that the headquarters of the São Paulo Stock Exchange had been chosen as the target of a terrorist attack that was to be perpetrated by the PCC criminal faction, with threats to use explosives.
The attack didn’t take place because of the arrest of Petronília Maria de Carvalho Felício, which made the faction members give up on the act.
7.3 2006 attacks
On the night of 12 May 2006, the PCC organised a wave of attacks against security forces and some civilian targets in the state of São Paulo. By the 14th, the attack had spread to other Brazilian states, such as Espírito Santo, Paraná, Mato Grosso do Sul, Minas Gerais and Bahia (the latter with no direct link to the PCC) (source).
The attacks, which came to be known as the Crimes de Maio (“May Crimes”), had repercussions in the Brazilian media and were highlighted in the international press during the days that followed. Across the state, 564 people were killed and 110 injured between 12 and 21 May 2006, of which 505 were civilians and 59 public officials (source).
7.4 2012 attacks
In 2012, the PCC organised another wave of attacks against the police. The cause was an announcement made by PCC leaders and spread to gang members outside of jail. For about thirty days, every day one or two police officers were killed, mostly in defenceless circumstances, such as on leave, on holiday, or even retired officers (source).
Many police officers were murdered in front of family members or friends, usually when they were arriving or leaving their homes. In December, the killings began to decrease and ceased for no known reason (source).
7.5 2017 Paraguay heist
A group of at least 30 men using heavy armament looted the company Prosegur in Ciudad del Este, in the Triple Frontier of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, in April 2017. According to initial allegations, 40 million dollars were stolen, but this figure was later lowered to eight million.
The PCC was the major suspect in the crime because the modus technique was identical to previous robberies, although this was never verified. It was the largest robbery in Paraguayan history. Four persons were hurt, including a police officer.
7.6 Foiled 2023 attacks
On 22 March 2023, the Federal Police launched Operação Sequaz to arrest members of the PCC who were planning to assassinate several Brazilian authorities.
The task force targeted 11 people, with seven preventive arrest warrants and four temporary arrest warrants in Mato Grosso do Sul, Rondônia, São Paulo and Paraná, with the participation of around 120 agents.
Despite the Brazilian government’s efforts to eradicate the PCC and similar gangs, the group remains active and represents a major criminal threat in the region. The PCC has proven to be flexible, autonomous, and resistant to government efforts. Its recruitment capacity allows the group to survive and even expand. Meanwhile, the violence they employ gives them a sense of inviolability and provokes fear in their rivals and the civilian population. In addition, the expansion of the CCP into neighbouring countries requires strong cooperation between governments. It is very likely that the PCC will continue to grow stronger, not only inside the prisons but also outside.
Government forces will continue to put pressure on the group and stifle them financially to make them disappear. However, the Brazilian government must address the social aspect too. To do so, the authorities must address the structural causes and root factors that benefit the group, which often are poverty and the feeling of abuse and neglect by the authorities.