The Brazilian state of Sao Paulo is at the center of increasing violence between local law enforcement and a prominent criminal organization whose influence is expanding in the region.
The prison gang known as Primeiro Comando da Capital (“First Command of the Capital”), or PCC, has been identified as a responsible party in the wave of homicides involving some 90 police officers and 571 civilians in the state this year.
Corruption within Sao Paulo’s law enforcement has also been identified as a major contributing factor in the violence, according to human rights organization Amnesty International.
"For many years, there has been a high number of killings committed by police that are not being investigated," Amnesty’s Brazil researcher Tim Cahill told the BBC.
"We believe that this has contributed not only to the corruption of the police but to the actual involvement of officers in criminal acts."
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Amnesty claims that police in Sao Paulo are facing a violent backlash from the PCC over their aggressive methods of dealing with organized crime and the lack of accountability for their actions, which it believes involves criminal activity.
Brazilian authorities in Sao Paulo have said they are addressing any issues of police corruption and expelling and prosecuting any criminal offenders on the force.
“The state does not condone criminal police officers," a public security spokesman told the BBC.
The uptick in police killings in the state and lack of transparency involving officer-involved homicides has prompted Amnesty to question the practices of local law enforcement, while some analysts have focused on the role of the PCC.
InSight Crime, or ISC, a U.S.-based research group that analyzes organized crime in Latin America, has also linked the PCC’s expansion to the wave of violence in Sao Paulo, which it says may have been “triggered by an unofficial declaration of war by the group against police officers in the state.”
“The nature of the security threat posed by the PCC's expansion will depend on the strength of its central leadership,” read an ISC analysis on the situation in Sao Paulo.
“Its leaders, especially imprisoned PCC founder Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, alias Marcola, have demonstrated their capacity to direct coordinated gang violence from their jail cells.”
According to ISC, the PCC is involved in smuggling cocaine across the border from Bolivia, making some $32 million annually from drug trafficking in addition to dues paid by gang members.
The PCC has a presence in 21 out of 27 Brazilian states and effectively controls 135 out of Sao Paulo’s 152 prisons, ISC said, citing a government-commission intelligence report.
ISC casts doubt, however, on the PCC’s influence outside of Sao Paulo, classifying it as a local problem.
“So far, the PCC's campaign against police does not appear to have expanded beyond the state, despite concerns over similar violence in the southern state of Santa Catarina,” the organization said.
“This is an indication that, like most street gangs, PCC cells are predominantly loose and semi-autonomous cells, more concerned with controlling the flow of local drug and arms trafficking routes than any national strategy.”
ISC adds that the PCC could increase its national influence if the authorities in Sao Paulo continue to negotiate with it.
The last wave of violence occurred in 2006 with the deaths of nearly 50 prison and police officers and 400 civilians, according to the BBC.
ISC believes that Sao Paulo authorities negotiated a truce with the PCC and that the recent violence is evidence that the terms of the alleged peace deal have been violated, though the Brazilian government has denied that any negotiations have taken place.
“Now that the group has a stronger nationwide presence, mid-level PCC commanders elsewhere are no doubt watching to see what their leaders in Sao Paulo can accomplish by negotiating with authorities,” ISC said.
“If they succeed, it could even encourage similar waves of violence throughout the country. “