In recent months, the São Paulo state government has been attempting an almost Herculean task: limiting the power of Brazil's largest prison gang, the First Capital Command (PCC). But success in the long run will require deep structural reforms in the judicial and penal systems.
In October 2013, São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin unveiled a new task force charged with breaking the PCC's leadership structure. Its main task was isolating imprisoned PCC leaders from their operations base. The government would also investigate the gang's ties to corrupt police, Alckmin said, and install new cell phone-blocking technology in high-security prisons across the state.
Based in São Paulo but with operations in Paraguay and Bolivia and in 22 states across the country, the PCC has an estimated 11,000 members and controls a vast multi-million dollar criminal network that includes local and international drug trafficking, prostitution, kidnapping and extortion.
The gang's top leader, Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, alias "Marcola," was captured in 1999. In the years since, Marcola and other influential PCC leaders have successfully coordinated illicit activities behind bars, using contraband cell phones and third parties to communicate.
In May 2006, the PCC orchestrated coordinated attacks on security forces and public transportation services in the streets of São Paulo -- a city of 20 million people -- and in 73 prisons across the state, paralyzing commercial activity for days.
More recently, the group has carried on a prolonged battle with the police. The PCC is also reportedly ratcheting up its activities as the World Cup approaches.
While prison administrators in Brazil have long sought to limit gang members' contact with the outside, progress is slow. Authorities claim to have seized almost 35,000 cell phones from inmates in 2012 alone. When compared to the national prison population, this figure represents one phone for every 15 prisoners, yet the seizures have had no apparent impact.
Cutting Contact with the Outside?
In January, the governor's office inaugurated the new cell phone jamming system. Its first target was the Mauricio Henrique Guimaraes Pereira Penitentiary, a maximum security facility in the west of the state that houses the PCC's top leaders, including Marcola, Claudio Barbara da Silva, alias "Barbara," and Celio Marcelo da Silva, otherwise known as "Bin Laden."
A month after this announcement, local press reported that the PCC was developing a plan to free Marcola and three other gang leaders -- including Bin Laden -- from their cells. The plan was complex, and was equal parts action film and reality show. It allegedly involved the purchase of two helicopters, one of which would provide machine gun cover for the other, which would pick up the inmates from a small patio.
The police said they had broken up the plot by intercepting phone conversations, and prison administrators placed the would-be escapees in solitary confinement. But the plot seemed at least exaggerated, if not wholly fiction, and Brazilian media largely ignored it.
What's more, it revealed flaws in the government security plan to isolate the prisoners' communications. According to newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, which first ran the story, one of the last calls related to the escape plot came from inside the penitentiary, in which alias "Bin Laden" phoned an accomplice on February 2, two days after the phone-jamming system was supposedly put in place by the state.
Camila Dias, a University of São Paulo sociologist and member of the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety (FBSP), said the story is more about politics than prisons. Gubernatorial elections are in October, and breaking up a dramatic escape plot might score points with the electorate.
"There is a contradiction here: either the blockers did not work, the interceptions were not recent, or other forms of interception were used," Dias said. "For me, that supposed plot was not well-explained, and has more to do with recent political disputes between various government and opposition groups, with regard to the next elections."
Even without cell phones, powerful prison inmates have other means of communication: sneaking messages to the outside via visitors; bribing or threatening the guards to pass these messages to couriers.
To be sure, the PCC already has a proven track record of ordering hits without relying on cell phone communication. In January 2007, a PCC member known as "Carrefour" relayed a message via a lawyer to a comrade imprisoned across the state, in the municipality of Maua, who organized the assassination of a prison administrator.
Reform: the Rough Path Forward
Reclaiming state control within prisons has no proven formula. The most common strategies include those that authorities have been attempting for years to little or no effect: segregating leaders from the general prison population, cracking down on contraband and restricting privileges.
However, the prisoners retain the advantage on the several fronts. Their complete control allows them to recruit both the prisoners and their families into the fold. This is made easier by the fact that conditions in jail are so precarious.
Cramped facilities, unsanitary food and a lack of medical care are common throughout the Brazilian prison system. In penitentiaries across the country, inmates are routinely denied dependable access to basic living items like soap, toilet paper and toothpaste. This trend only deepens the gangs' power.
"As these conditions are not met, a way to survive is to depend on the PCC to provide them…as well as the provision of other substances such as tobacco and illicit drugs. Because nothing is free, the price paid is loyalty. And that, of course, further strengthens the PCC's power," said the FBSP's Dias. "The recurrent violations and repression by state institutions reinforce the power of the PCC, legitimize its discourse and strengthen loyalty among its members -- loyalty that unites them against the state."
Guards, prison administrators and their families are also vulnerable, and their poor pay gives them little incentive to challenge the notoriously dangerous and sophisticated gangs whose own contacts reach into the highest levels of law enforcement.
Even in the US, officials have no standard tried and true method of breaking gang control in penitentiaries, which often translates into significant power outside of jails as well. A 2010 survey of gang management strategies conducted by criminal justice specialists John Winterdyk and Rick Ruddell saw little consensus on the best practices among prison administrators. The two found no clear pattern regarding the most successful approaches, with some 75 percent of respondents reporting an increase in prison gang membership in the past five years.
So with Brazilian prison administrators' standard tools seemingly useless against the PCC's wide influence and ability to connect imprisoned leaders with the business end of operations, is there any hope of São Paulo reining in the gang's influence in the prison system? Experts think so, but it won't be easy.
According to Melina Risso of the Sou da Paz Institute, a crime and violence research organization in São Paulo, the solution lies in a systematic approach that emphasizes reducing the country's prison population. The logic is straightforward: so long as the gangs control prisons, flooding them with new recruits is counterproductive.
There are an estimated 500,000 inmates in the country, the third largest number of prisoners in the world behind the United States and China. Part of this is due to a judicial system that relies on pre-trial detention with 40 percent of those behind bars in preventative detention.
In 2012, courts began adopting a law passed the previous year which allowed judges to issue more alternative sentences, allowing certain offenders to serve their time under house arrest with the aid of electronic tracking bracelets.
The law is a step forward, but Risso claims progress is still limited.
"Although we have a legal framework, we have a really conservative judiciary. Some judges are not using these [alternative sentences] enough," Risso said. "They do not implement them because they do not trust the structure. We need to invest in these, to show that they are working much more effectively than constructing new prison units."
But while tackling overcrowding is an area that continues to have some energy behind it, prison conditions in São Paulo and the country at large remain in dire straits. According to Dias of the FBSP, really breaking prison gangs requires improving the basic management of penitentiaries.
And while the recent headline-grabbing prison violence in northeastern Maranhão state briefly focused attention on poor conditions, this conversation has slipped out of the national consciousness in the weeks since.
Ultimately, taking back prisons in São Paulo from the PCC will require more than increased surveillance, these analysts emphasize. Until authorities assume greater responsibility for prisoners' basic needs and well-being, the PCC and other powerful rivals will remain the only viable authorities in the eyes of those behind bars.