São Paulo: insecure citizens, all of them

Recent spikes in homicides across São Paulo challenge the city's reputation as a darling of public security and underscores the pervasive control criminal gangs like the Primeiro Comando da Capital have on the everyday security of city-residents.


Police loiter at the scene of a police killing in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

In recent years, São Paulo, Brazil has like many other Latin American cities, been held up as a model of public security for other cities in the global South. Dramatic declines in homicides by more than 80% in some urban districts, has created a sense that the city is safer than ever. By extension, many have supposed and some explicitly argued that heightened public security policies are the reason for such declines.

A recent spate of hundreds of homicides, killings by the police force (known until recently as resistencias seguida de morte), and assassinations of police officers, tells a much different story. This violence lays bare the sub-structure of homicide regulation in the city. Since the early 2000’s, São Paulo’s decline in homicides has been intimately intertwined with the increasing influence of a non-state armed group known as the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC). The PCC, which controls many of the historically violent parts of the city, has its own regulation of death. This underscores the breakdown of the monopoly on violence in the city and exposes the relative impossibility of public policy advancement. More importantly, though, this new wave of violence reveals the degree of insecurity in this city where those most responsible for delivering public security policy –the police - are not secure.

If the police are insecure…

Though elected officials are loathe to admit it, the recent wave of violence is yet another demonstration of the influence that the PCC holds behind the scene. Between May and December of last year, 102 police officers were killed in the city, almost all while off-duty. Although the exact numbers are hard to attain with certainty, around 85 of these killings –and countless other police ‘woundings’- were carried out by, or for, the PCC. In response, police killings of civilians –already a near-daily fact- has roughly tripled.  Homicides, some of which showed tell-tale signs of police involvement, increased by 96% at the height of the crisis.

For more than six months the police and members of the PCC engaged in an undeclared urban war. Strategically, the PCC targeted off-duty police officers, preying on the weakness of the city’s policemen and women – underpaid and undervalued as they are- who live in and around areas controlled by the organization. They were successful in their efforts. Police were assassinated on their doorsteps, while teaching jiu-jitsu, on their motorcycles driving to work, while walking with their children and in the midst of bagging their groceries at the supermarket check-out.

On the other hand, the police and in particular two police agencies, known as ROTA and the Força Tática, responded by killing suspected PCC members in similarly horrific fashion. PPolice were caught loading PCC members into cars alive only to later drop them off dead at hospitals. A home video shot from a rooftop caught police removing a PCC member from his home and killing him moments later as he tried to flee.

Among the police themselves, rumours have circulated that colleagues had killed the mother of a top PCC member in a vengeful operation supposedly justified by the kidnapping of a police officer’s family member. By December 2012, as the attacks seemed to subside, another rumour among police officers had it that PCC members were now routinely leaving home with bible in hand in order to claim, when stopped by the police, that they had been reborn.

If police themselves had some notion of what was going on, a concerned public had few answers. For those following the events via the media and the political rhetoric of the Governor and the Public Security Secretary there was no easy way to make sense of how public security in this wealthy and global mega-city could have devolved into a clannish blood feud.

Security, splintered

For around ten years the PCC has been a fixture of the city’s urban security environment. Arising out of the anarchically violent prison system in the 1990’s, the PCC advanced an ideal of unity and self-protection from violence among prisoners. Functionally abandoned by the public security system, prisons were havens of murder, abuse and disease, spread both by sexual violence and deprivation. Left to fend for themselves behind bars, prisoners were responsible for daily subsistence, including providing their own clothing, food and hygiene products. These deplorable conditions and treatment of prisoners came to a head in 1992 when a riot at the Carandiru prison complex was put down with brutal force, leaving 111 prisoners dead.

As one police officer shrewdly explained, groups like the PCC in São Paulo are themselves a ‘social prophylaxis’ for insecurity. Following the Carandiru massacre in October 1993, survivors drafted a formal statute that clearly outlined a new vision for unity among prisoners under the protective banner of an organization to be known as the Primeiro Comando da Capital. “The massacre will never again be forgotten in the Brazilian conscience,” it reads, “…because we, the Comando, will change the way that prisons are inhumane, full of injustice, oppression, torture, and massacres...[members] will respect and hold in solidarity all (other) members…any attempt to divide the brotherhood will lead to excommunication and punishment”. Within months, violence in the prison system dropped precipitously. As Drauzio Varella and others have argued, the PCC virtually eliminated sexual violence, banned the consumption of crack in the prison and only orchestrated riots as a form of activism.

This self-protection rationale wasn’t confined to the prisons for long. After spreading throughout São Paulo’s state prison system, by 2002 the PCC was beginning to make its mark in the outside world, most evidently respresented in the establishment of ‘peace among criminals’ agreements across São Paulo. Gabriel Feltran has argued that this agreement between gangs underscores a decline in homicides in the most violent areas of the city, where the PCC operate and represents an emergent and de facto form of social order and control in the city. 

Still headed by leaders held in the President Venceslau prison in western São Paulo state, the organization created new divisions of labour and expanded its revenue streams.  Ever more complex, ‘sintonias’ were set up within the prisons and in each community to oversee each category of activity, from drug sales to community assistance, excommunication, registration of new members, prison raffles, book-keeping, legal representation, communication among members and membership dues.

By 2010, and empowered by their position at the heart of the cocaine, crack cocaine and marijuana trade in São Paulo state, the leadership drafted a new statute with a more business oriented, though still moralistic, rationale. This new statute clearly outlines conditions wherein the organization will punish members with death, while clarifying the demands of membership and the push for expansion throughout Brazil and into Bolivia and Paraguay.

“The Command has no territorial limits. All baptized members, are important pieces of the Primeiro Comando da Capital, independent of city, state or country. All must follow our rules, hierarchy and statute.”

Non-state regulation of death

Make no mistake, the PCC is its own system of governance and security with far reaching effects. Documents seized from PCC flash drives lay out exactly how the system of punishment and accountability works. Punishment records are tabulated in tables that list name, membership number, neighbourhood, nickname, last known prison address, date of baptism, place of baptism, names of baptism godfathers, quantity of drugs provided, and when, where and why the member was decretado (had their death decreed). 

Death is heavily regulated. In ad-hoc tribunals, members of the PCC decide when and why a member of the organization or a resident of a community is guilty; and in quick succession punishment is delivered. This proactive regulation of death across São Paulo is reminiscent of what Achille Mbembe might term a necro-policy.

For many, this regulation is an everyday experience. Early in 2012, on the far south side of the city, an 18 year old woman was found dead by local residents. A known user of crack cocaine, this woman, who I’ll call Gabriella, had apparently been raped and left to die. Police tried desperately to solve the crime, canvassing the area, talking with residents and seeking out known sex offenders and recent sexual crimes in the area. With few leads and even fewer witnesses the case was passed on to secondary investigators.

Within days the offender turned himself in. After some deliberation about the case, he said, the local ‘decision makers’ decided to give him a choice: walk himself into the homicide department or die. He claimed that the death of Gabriella was a consensual crack-for-sex exchange gone wrong. After they had intercourse she became unresponsive and collapsed, half naked. Scared, he fled. For ‘the guys’ (os caras de lá), there was no way of proving that he hadn’t just taken advantage of her on a dark street. According to him, if he could have proved that the incident wasn’t a rape, and that it was in fact ‘just’ sex-for-crack, they would have let him go.  

A rupture and an explosion

In June 2012 the PCC exploded into the spotlight. The suspicious killing of a group of PCC members by the ROTA police agency at the end of May destabilized the increasingly business-oriented outlook of the organization. Tipped off by an ‘anonymous informant’, ROTA had set off to interrupt a PCC meeting in progress, where allegedly, members were planning to bust a fellow affiliate out of prison.

The result was ugly. Six PCC members were killed on site, and two –including a woman- were arrested. A third was taken from the scene alive and executed on the side of a highway, an event caught on surveillance camera. Although the ROTA members claimed there was a prolonged shoot-out involving a military-issue 7.62 rifle originally from the Argentinean army, there was no damage to the ROTA vehicles or injuries to any of the police involved.

The killings upset the PCC leaders, who called for vengeance. Wire taps and PCC members arrested around the time told of regional meetings where plans to kill police were laid out. Within days, police were being targeted while off-duty. In a span of three days in June, eight police were killed.

Discussions with police themselves and an analysis of the cases of some killings of police, shows many near misses. The period was packed full of stories about cars loitering outside of police homes, and police officers taking indefinite leave due to the imminent threat to their lives.

Insecure and fearful more than ever, police sought out new means of self-defence from the threat of PCC violence. On duty, police became exceedingly violent, killing multiple people each day. In a handful of particularly egregious incidents, more than five people were killed in a single ‘shoot-out’.

Off duty, some police organized in retaliation groups and carried out multiple killings in known PCC areas. For institutional and political reasons, as well as collegial sentiments of insecurity that place these killings low on the resolution priority list, only a tiny fraction of these cases will ever be resolved.

Illegible violence?

It is impossible to reconcile the gratuitous loss of human life that occurred during São Paulo’s recent spate of violence. But it is even less reasonable to compare, implicitly or explicitly, this violence to the way things work in the developed world. When stacked against the theoretical and normative backdrop of policing and public security policy in places like the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada it makes dreadfully little sense.

The one way to begin to start to make this violence legible is to set aside assumptions about what police should be (and do) that often are based, in one way or the other, on places in which the state benefits from a monopoly on violence. Too many attempted police reforms have failed for these assumptions. Police in São Paulo do not maintain a monopoly on violence as in Toronto, London or New York.  Instead, they are in a constant battle to centralize violence.

In the meantime, everyone is insecure and the prognosis is grim. This empirical reality should be evidence enough that public security policy is not itself responsible for the dramatic decline in homicides in São Paulo. As long as police themselves are insecure, security will never be truly ‘public’.

About the author

Graham Denyer Willis is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His work is supported by a Drugs, Security and Democracy Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council and the Open Society Foundations.