In Rio de Janeiro, A Red Wedding For Organized Crime

At the worst possible moment for Rio, a new kind of criminal organization is moving into the city, writes Maria Martin in Brazil’s El Pais. Sophisticated, genteel, and extremely violent, the First Capital Commando appears to be too well organized for the city’s poorly equipped and underfunded police to handle.

The giveaway wasn’t a particular phone call or a specific sentence; it was the accents. When Rio de Janeiro police listening in on the phone calls of imprisoned Rio drug dealers started hearing them talking to people with Sao Paulo accents, alarm bells went off. Police had been investigating links between the Comando Vermelho (Red Commando), the largest criminal organization in Rio, and its network of weapon and drug distributors, but they began to realize they were hearing hints of something bigger and more disturbing for this crisis-plagued state: the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Capital Commando), a powerful criminal organization from the city of Sao Paulo, had set its sights on taking over Rio.

The First Capital Commando had been allied with the Red Commando for more than two decades, but over a year ago, they had broken off the alliance. The divorce became official in October, with sudden bloodbaths in the penitentiaries of the country’s faraway north; 21 prisoners were murdered. Criminals who had up to this point been able to live in harmony in the streets, borderlands and prisons of the country were now asking to be segregated in jails so they no longer had to share cells, and could thereby stay alive.

Now the drug dealers from Sao Paulo were coming for the territory of their onetime associates, coopting their jailed members, and taking over the operations centers and headquarters where Rio’s organized crime is managed. The invasion, which in a way resembles a corporate expansion strategy, also comprises commercial agreements with other criminal organizations, with the aim of achieving a monopoly on the distribution of drugs and weapons in Rio’s most profitable ghetto, the enormous Rocinha favela, located in the wealthy southern zone of the city. The goal is to both increase the First Capital Commando’s profits, and fatally undermine their now-rival gang. “Those Red Commando guys are fucked now with us,” an imprisoned Sao Paulo gang member was recorded saying in one of the recent intercepted calls.

The First Capital Commando is organized more and more like a large corporation-they even have an ‘Institutional Relations Office.’ Their expansion strategy was in part documented in more than 1,500 wiretapped calls captured by police in jails all over Brazil between February and October of last year [when the shooting war began]. In these calls, members of the First Capital Commando try to convince inmates who are bosses of smaller favelas in the Rio countryside to switch their allegiances from the Red Commando to the Sao Paulo group.

In the Brazilian underworld, recruiting new members to a gang is referred to as ‘baptizing’ them. The First Capital Commando has delegated the task of over the-phone baptisms to Gledson Fernandes, also known as The Ghost. Fernandes is presently serving a 20-year prison sentence for larceny, theft and criminal association at the maximum security prison of Piraquara, down in the state of Parana; as investigators discovered, inmates there apparently make conference calls as they please.

The Ghost had little difficulty coopting new members from Rio. The First Capital Commando offers compelling advantages to its members, with a structure that the Red Commando — seen as more bloodthirsty than organized–simply cannot match: legal assistance, drug and weapon loans, support all over Brazil and in neighboring countries where the First Capital Commando has branches, and better conditions in jail, from plasma televisions to fried chicken dinners. It also offers its members medical assistance, and if something goes terribly wrong in a particular criminal enterprise, it covers their funeral expenses. In return it demands loyalty, acceptance of the organization’s rules, and a monthly payment of 400 reais [$120] to support members who are in prison. Smoking crack and homosexuality are forbidden.

The pact is for life. Leaving the organization to join another one is considered treason, and the sentence for it is death, warns the Ghost, who, by the end of the investigation spearheaded by chief of Police Antenor Lopes, had ‘baptized’ around 90 new members in Rio jail cells. The organization’s goal is to get control of a jail of their own in Rio, a lockup where the First Capital Commando would be in charge and can plot their operations in a vast territory of Brazil where the criminals from São Paulo have up to this point had little presence.

The phone calls made by the Ghost to penitentiaries in Rio resulted in the wholesale cooptation of Red Commando leaderships from seven cities in the state (Saquarema, Petrópolis, Macaé, Rio Bonito, Rio das Ostras, Três Rios and Paraíba do Sul). They are leaders of favelas that are small in comparison to the ones ruled by the Red Commando in the state capital, but those favelas are located in strategic places, close to escape routes and the routes through which these organizations smuggle weapons and drugs.

The police and other intelligence agencies are still unsure what caused the alliance between the two largest criminal organizations in Brazil to collapse. The investigation points to different aspects, such as the unpaid debts the Red Commando has with the First Capital Commando for previous sales of drugs and weapons, the armed conflict the Red Commando is fighting with two other criminal organizations from Rio, and the association of the Red Commando with criminals who are enemies of the First Capital Commando in the north and northeastern parts of the country. These squabbles among criminals reveal that the well-organized First Capital Commando, which has a sophisticated money-laundering system and the vision of a multinational corporation, has grown tired of the Red Commando, which is indebted and informal, and is suffering from the territorial wars it has been fighting against two other organizations from Rio: Amigo dos Amigos (Friend of the Friends, ADA, in the Portuguese acronym) and Terceiro Comando Puro (Pure Third Command, TCP, in the Portuguese acronym).

One of the police officers involved in the investigation, who has listened to more than two thousand hours of conversations, explains the differences that separate the business visions of the two organizations: “The First Capital leaders we’ve listened to in the phone calls are much more articulate, while with the Red Commando it is hard to even understand what they’re talking about, because their conversations are filled with slang. With the Red Commando you notice the poverty, while the First Capital is more integrated to society. The First Capital money is in banks, gas stations, real estate. The Red Commando money is hidden in plastic bags in holes in the wall.”

The worst possible moment for Rio
The First Capital Commando leader in charge of the Rio expansion has made it clear that First Capital has no interest in taking part in the rivalries that dominate Rio’s favelas, and that their common enemy is much larger: the State. “This war that the Red Commando is fighting against the TCP and ADA is not our war […]. It is a Red Commando war,” says the Ghost in one of the intercepted phone calls that were obtained by EL PAÍS. “If only the criminals in Rio were more united, if they didn’t keep fighting each other, you can be sure that the slaughter we are seeing in Rio’s prison system would not exist. But they’d rather kill each other than unite and fight against the Government. Our fight is against the Government, do you get it?!” he says.

The PCC’s interest in settling in Rio comes at the worst possible moment. The State is economically weak, is having trouble paying its public servants – including the Police force –, and is witnessing a rise in crime rates. The arrival of a new organization that is far more sophisticated than the other ones that operate in Rio, and that controls all of the criminal activity in São Paulo and in much of the country without the authorities being able to undermine it, is a virtual nightmare for any public safety specialist.

“The biggest worry in Rio is regarding drug trafficking, but it does not end there. The First Capital Commando will target other criminal activities in the State. We will have an organization with a great power of mobilization acting in a state that is weakened, frail, without money to invest, and with a police force that is not even being paid their salaries”, warns Paulo Storani, an anthropologist who is the former head of Rio’s Special Operations Battalion. Storani fears that the violence in Rio will soar with First Capital’s arrival. “In order to contain this organization, you need forceful police, but right now the police don’t have the ability to respond swiftly”, says Storani, who criticizes the lack of a national public safety plan and the “omission” on the part of the Brazilian Government of a plan for fighting organized crime.

The strategy reaches the most profitable favela
While the inmates were changing sides, the First Capital Commando was planning a new expansion route for the organized crime in Rio. Important drugs and weapons suppliers in Brazil, the criminals from São Paulo have made an alliance with the ADA, the Red Commando’s local archenemy, in the largest and most profitable favela in Rio, called Rocinha. Police sources state that First Capital has already achieved a monopoly over the drug and weapons trade in that favela. “Due to the fact that the First Capital Commando is more organized and has more buying power, they can get better prices. It is a commercial agreement just like any other. Why wouldn’t the ADA accept it when First Capital is offering better prices?”, asks Police Chief Lopes.

The public prosecutor has also commented on the new order that is being established by the criminals. “I have information that the drug dealers in Rio have been receiving large shipments of rifles. This is part of the strategy of the criminals from São Paulo. In Rio’s Gericinó penitentiary alone there are already more than one hundred criminals from the First Capital Commando. One hundred! They are gradually taking over Rocinha. And the local criminals are allowing it”, says prosecutor André Guilherme de Freitas.

The First Capital Commando plans to accumulate power are revealed in other recent episodes outside of Rio, such as the ‘baptisms’ of inmates from other states like Espírito Santo, which were revealed in the wiretaps of the Civil Police investigation, and the spectacular murder of entrepreneur and drug dealer Jorge Rafaat Toumani last June. While he was driving through the streets of the city of Pedro Juan Caballero (the land frontier between Brazil and Paraguay), around one hundred mercenaries connected to Paraguayan groups and to the First Capital Commando used anti-aircraft weapons and military issue machine guns to kill the man who at that point was known as the “King of trafficking” on the frontier. The crime was considered by the authorities as the beginning of a war for the main routes of transportation of marijuana and cocaine in South America. Whoever controls these routes also controls the whole chain of production, trade and distribution of drugs in the region.

Rafaat himself had filled the post left vacant by Luiz Fernando da Costa, known as Fernandinho Beira-Mar, former Red Commando leader, when he was arrested in 2002. The King of Trafficking took over the distribution of drugs in many towns that have borders with the State of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. His relationship with the First Capital Commando was considered cordial until five years ago, but the situation took a turn for the worse when Rafaat started charging higher fees in order for the First Capital Commando to move drugs from Paraguay to Brazil. As it is doing now, the First Capital Commando simply chose to eliminate those who slowed its path.

María Martín Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard