Sao Paulo's Raging Drug War

By McCarton Ackerman 12/21/12

Cops fight on against the PCC—the murderous gang that dominates local prisons and the drug trade.

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Sao Paulo is the latest major South American city to see its drug war spiral out of control. The conflict there between police officers and a drug trafficking gang known as the Primeiro Comando da Capital has led to a huge increase in police deaths. So far in 2012, 102 officers have been killed in Sao Paulo—nearly twice the total number killed across the US in 2010. It's unclear how many PCC members have been killed, but arresting them does little good: most of the group's leaders already carry out their business in jail. Between 6,000 and 13,000 members are estimated to be behind bars, and they're thought to control 135 of the city's 152 prisons. The PCC also ranks as a major security threat to the Pope's visit next year, the soccer World Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Olympics. “For all of us, the military and the police, this is something very important, to be ready to face those threats,” says Alvoro de Souza Pinheiro, a security analyst and retired army major general. Guaracy Mingardi, a public security expert in Sao Paulo, says that the PCC controls more than half of the crack, cocaine and marijuana trade in the city. There are members as far away as Bolivia—the source of 80% of the cocaine in Brazil. Analysts say that the tide turned somewhat in favor of the police after a battle between law enforcement forces and the PCC last May, in which cops killed six PCC members and the gang retaliated with more murders of policemen. But the police must refrain from making a formal truce if they're to avoid comparisons with Rio—where 63 cops were recently arrested for their involvement in drug trafficking. "[If that happens], you will have to start asking questions about when does this become a situation like Italy, where organised crime and the state are so well interlinked that one can’t disarticulate one from the other," says Graham Denyer Willis, a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who studies the PCC.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.