BY PAUL ELISH:
Here in the United States, we have a history of struggling for prison reform. Dorothea Dix, for example, fought for the rights of the mentally ill who, until her work in the 1840s, were indiscriminately locked up along with convicted criminals. For better or for worse, various approaches to incarceration came to the fore in the 1800s as well: The Pennsylvania System’s focus on solitary confinement initially gained widespread support until it was supplanted by the classic striped uniforms, lockstep walking, and absolute silence of the Auburn System. Today, our system certainly still needs reform, and I highly (and biasedly) recommend getting involved with the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project if you want to address prison overpopulation, recidivism, and other incarceration issues in Connecticut and beyond. For this week’s post, I’ve been focusing on a Latin American prison reform group whose members consist entirely of current and former Brazilian inmates.
The Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC, or “First Command of the Capital”) is a grassroots organization of sorts in the sense that it works directly (and exclusively) with the demographic most connected with prison reform. From what I gathered in investigating the PCC, it formed in the early 1990s as a form of resistance against abuses of the incarcerated in the Brazilian justice system. A massacre that resulted in the deaths of over 100 inmates at the hands of guards in the early 90s was the most direct catalyst for the PCC’s formation, and it incorporated members in a fraternal network seeking to further collective interests. The group is impressively organized too, with its 19-point statue detailing the basic, but strict, rules by which members should abide. Some of the points are pretty interesting: for example, the motto of the organization is “Liberty, Justice, and Peace”; you can’t have committed rape or assault if you want to be a member; and there’s a very clear process for being “baptized” into the group. O Globo’s provides a pretty good info-graphic on the subject.
The problem lies in the fact that, as much as we could term the PCC an activist group, it is also Brazil’s largest criminal organization. It “furthers members’ interests” by coordinating attacks against guards and police both inside and outside the penal system, by providing often-shady assistance to relatives of members, and by gaining money for members through enormous marijuana- and cocaine-trafficking schemes that have spread into Bolivia and Paraguay. Incarcerated crime lords using cell phones within Brazilian prisons coordinate all these activities, and members’ loyalty is assured by the price of betrayal: death. All this came to my attention when I read, in Brazilian news, that a crime kingpin in the depths of a São Paulo prison has vowed to turn the 2014 Cup into a “World Cup of Terror” if plans to transfer him to a different facility come to fruition. Given the PCC’s track record of coordinated violence, I wouldn’t dismiss the threat.
For me, the whole process of looking into the PCC has highlighted the fact that the real problem is that the organization is not really an outlier for the Americas in terms of being indicative of failing incarceration systems. We have enough problems with an overly punitive, racially unequal, and overcrowded corrections system in the United States. Add to this that various Latin American countries have been in the news for major issues linked with prisons: for example, the fact that inmates basically control certain Venezuelan prisons and stage gladiatorial fights; or the fact that fires have killed scores of inmates multiple times in Honduras. One hardly needs to mention that the PCC has parallels in Central America’s maras and Mexican cartels. (As a side note, GlobalPost’s “Encarcelation” page is an incredible resource on the subject of prison issues across Latin America.) The sad truth is that issues with prisons constitute a theme that incorporates practically every corner of the Western Hemisphere. This corresponds to the difficulties in trying to promote the welfare of some of the most maligned members of society. In the case of the PCC, they have taken the crusade for their welfare into their own hands, and unlike other areas of activism, I have to say that this instance of self-empowerment is really, really dangerous.
But what does the PCC’s threat really mean for the World Cup? I’m finding it interesting how the approach of the World Cup and the Olympics has really triggered a reform impulse within Brazil in general, and the PCC is perversely jumping onto that bandwagon too, using the mega-events as leverage for “activism.” I can provide a little anecdotal evidence on security from my time in Rio de Janeiro, which coincided with the Jornada Mundial da Juventude (the Catholic Church’s “World Youth Day”), an event that was considered a test run for Brazil as other large-scale events near. Some, like Rio’s mayor, gave the event a failing grade in terms of planning, and all the logistical issues weren’t ameliorated by infernally bad weather that turned Ipanema Beach into Normandy for a week. Nevertheless, I can attest that even living in a more “dangerous” part of Copacabana (my host-mother’s apartment was right next to a favela’s entrance), I felt quite safe, and the expansion of the security presence in the city during the event was very noticeable as compared to the remainder of my visit. Incessant issues dogged the city, but nonetheless, the event definitely had a festive atmosphere. Similarly, I expect the World Cup to be far from perfect, but I don’t expect it to be dismissed as an utter failure. Still, I am crossing my fingers that the threats of the PCC, and other threats in the realm of crime against World Cup tourists, do not amount to sweeping issues that could be the real breaking point – precisely when the world has its eyes on Brazil.
Paul Elish ’15 is in Saybrook College. As a Notebook blogger, Paul covers Latin American politics and culture, both regionally and in New Haven. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.