Author

Evolution and Impact of Gangs in Central America and Brazil

This article is part of the book Challenges and Threats to Security in Latin America.


Summary

Two prison-based gangs ­–the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) in Central America and the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) in Brazil­­– amassed military, economic and political power, as well as extensive territorial control, to the degree that they now pose existential threats to the states in which they operate. They now form key components of formidable transnational criminal structures with deep ties to drug trafficking and other criminal activities on multiple continents. The groups honed their rise using different models and retain significant differences in structure and capabilities. Despite this, both are now key drivers of corruption, violence, criminal activity and alternative governance structures that pose a significant challenge to democratic governance across Latin America. These violent non-state armed groups are rooted in their home communities. In many places they are viewed as more legitimate authorities than the state, making effective action against them extremely complex and difficult.

Key Words: Gangs (Maras), MS-13, PCC, Drug Trafficking, Territorial Control.

Introduction

In the mid-1990s a new generation of street gangs emerged across Latin America. Economic displacement, migration, family fragmentation, growing youth unemployment and the end to multiple armed conflicts created of a vast a pool of potential recruits, many with extensive military training and experience. The gangs – in both cases, more than 90 % male in their composition – provided an alternative to the formal economy and traditional informal economic outlets.

Over time, many criminal groups disappeared, and others grew to become important local actors. Two of these gangs – The Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) in Central America and the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) in Brazil – evolved from street-level criminal activity to transnational criminal actors wielding enough power, resources, control, and legitimacy to pose an existential challenge to the states where they operate. According to Central American police estimates, the MS-13 has some 27,000 members in El Salvador and about 17,000 in Honduras.[1] The PCC is estimated to have about 11,000 members.[2]

Combatting corruption often focuses on senior government officials taking money or favors to allow illicit activities to proceed. However, the MS-13 and PCC assault the state from multiple directions: top down, bottom up, and lateral attacks across local, municipal and national systems of governance. The end result leaves the non-state armed groups replacing state functions, territorial control, and perceived legitimacy.

Similarities Between the Groups

Both non-state armed actors, with their growing access to income from multiple illicit commodity chains such as cocaine and human trafficking, have become important drivers of corruption, state collapse and criminal takeover of state institutions and functions in the hemisphere. Both groups made calculated decisions over the past decade to enhance their political legitimacy by providing specific functions and services that the state is not capable of providing.[3]

Both groups are now transnational and aspire to become vertically integrated structures controlling the supply, transport and sale of cocaine. While both groups initially provided transportation and protection services from drug trafficking organizations, they both now purchase cocaine directly from wholesale providers in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador for resale further up the value chain. Both groups have also made inroads controlling parts of the supply chain of precursor chemicals used in synthetic drug manufacturing.[4] The MS-13 leadership in Honduras developed a strategy for becoming the primary cocaine cartel in Central America by 2025, according to gang members familiar with the plan.[5]

There are other similarities. Both groups: (1) Have a culture glorifying violence and crime as legitimate tools to achieve power, accumulate resources, and eliminate enemies; (2) Emerge from poor neighborhoods where the state historically maintained a brutal and corrupt presence. Most gang members, then, began as “other” in their own societies, marginalized from formal economies and social structures; (3) Have hierarchical structures that are both rigid and allow for local autonomy. Leaders achieve coordination through bodies known as sintonias (PCC) and ranflas (MS-13), but local groups have significant freedom implementing decisions that leadership makes; and (4) Rely on territorial control in heavily populated areas such as national and regional capitals, as well as key drug trafficking routes, to gain political and economic leverage and vertically integrate their trafficking structures.

Differences Between the Gangs

Evaluating the groups’ similarities sets the stage understanding why impacted states should engage with this analysis; given the commonalities, there are opportunities to learn from states which face similar challenges and have tried different approaches. In the same vein, the following differences between the groups’ history and development yield insights regarding their potential next steps, providing useful perspectives for developing strategies that could confront or counteract any upcoming decisions.

Some key differences between the groups are as follows: (1)The PCC has a significant public social media and cultural presence, using music videos that showcase their access to guns, cars, beautiful women, motorcycles and extravagant jewelry. This use of media for cultural signaling helps create a social legitimacy and cultural penetration among unemployed youth. The MS-13 has not yet achieved this; (2) While both groups increasingly use bribery, payoffs, and threats to gain political influence, the MS-13 successfully established itself as a power center inside the national and municipal governments of El Salvador and Honduras, with interlocutors at the cabinet level. Current analysis indicates the PCC is not yet as integrated into the highest levels of power and is instead focused on regional and municipal government structures; and (3) The PCC has the sophisticated logistical capability and skill to carry out high profile robberies of banks and jewelry stores, not only in Brazil but in other countries, a type of assault the MS-13 has yet to carry out.

The Development of the MS-13 in El Salvador and Honduras

Each gang presents significant differences in the paths followed to acquire power, influence, and resources. Between the gangs there are significant differences as well. The MS-13, initially formed in prisons in Los Angeles, California in the 1980s before being exported to post-conflict Central America in mid-1990s,[6] has long been recognized as a significant strategic challenge for the United States, in part because of its U.S. roots and ongoing proximity and engagement across the U.S. The group was declared “significant transnational criminal organization” by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2012.[7]

Our fieldwork with the MS-13 over the past three years found that, as gang leaders and members grow older and raise families, they increasingly desire a different, less violent lifestyle for their children and grandchildren while remaining active in the criminal world. PCC experts said the same overall trend is occurring within that group as well.

Now, in both Honduras and El Salvador, the MS-13 has a group of 10 to 12 “elder statesmen” who are consulted and, in some cases, have the final say over the strategic decisions of the group in each country. Over the past several years, this process produced an increased focus on investing growing earnings from drug trafficking into buying access to political structures through corruption -rather than relying on brute force and intimidation- to achieve gang objectives such as impunity, territorial expansion, and increased leverage inside formal power structures. Furthermore, the group now also invests millions of dollars derived from the drug trade and other illicit economic activities into legitimate businesses. This includes near-total control of urban transport companies in major cities and other cash-intensive businesses that simultaneously enhance territorial control.[8] The road taken by the MS-13 in El Salvador through direct political power differs significantly from the road to power taken by the Honduran branch. In Honduras, the MS-13 sought power through direct links with international cocaine cartels and networks that coordinate human trafficking and human smuggling.

In El Salvador, expanding territorial control, infiltration into the police and military, and political-economic pacts with the government of President Nayib Bukele have made the group a major political, economic and military force with direct access to cabinet-level officials.[9] In July 2021, the U.S. State Department took the unusual step of sanctioning and revoking the visas of four senior Bukele administration officials, designating them as corrupt actors.[10] On December 8, 2021, the U.S. Treasury Department designated two senior Bukele administration officials as corrupt actors specifically for “covert negotiations between government officials and the MS-13,” noting these meetings “were part of the Government of El Salvador’s efforts to negotiate a secret truce with gang leadership.”[11]

In Honduras, the MS-13 focused on taking the cocaine and synthetic drug trafficking routes, as well as refining coca base into cocaine in increasingly sophisticated laboratories. As the ties to drug trafficking networks grew, the MS-13’s financial, military and political power expanded and the group’s political engagement and legitimacy with the populations under their control grew exponentially.[12] As both branches increased their financial resources, they took steps to mitigate the behavior that most alienated them from the communities in which they live. The best example of this is their decision to reduce extortion (commonly called a “war tax”) of businesses and individuals in the neighborhoods they control. While extortion of external businesses (such as corporate chains) remains in place, in all of Honduras and parts of El Salvador under MS-13 control the hated and economically crippling extortion of local businesses has ended. The most significant gain from this decision is the grassroots political support the gang garnered in return. In most MS-13-controlled neighborhoods in and around the gang stronghold of San Pedro Sula, the group is now referred to as “the good gang” (la mara buena), in contrast to other groups, which are referred to pejoratively as simply gangsters (pandillas).[13]

The Development of the PCC in Brazil

The PCC was founded in prison in the 1990s and most of the original leadership remains incarcerated. The organization has drawn far less U.S. policy attention than the MS-13 because neither its drug trafficking activities nor other criminal endeavors directly touch the United States. However, the organization is in many ways far more sophisticated and international than the MS-13, and more destabilizing in the hemisphere. This is because the PCC has a broad multi-continental reach, direct ties to cocaine trafficking and distribution across South America, extensive territorial control and military capacity in the most economically significant country in Latin America, a demonstrated ability to carry out spectacular multi-million dollar heists, and the capacity to achieve social legitimacy through music and social media. The PCC was designated as Specially Designated Entity in the global drug trade by the U.S. Treasury Department in December 2021.[14]

The first PCC members were prisoners from São Paulo, which they viewed as Brazil’s true capital. As Leonardo Coutinho, a leading PCC expert, wrote:

On August 31, 1993, the Capital prisoners held a self-organized championship soccer tournament, appearing at the first game wearing standard white T-shirts; scrawled in blue ballpoint pen ink on the left breast were three letters—PCC, referring to Primeiro Comando da Capital, or First Capital Command. After the tournament the PCC assassinated the most feared criminals in Taubaté prison, earning the respect and loyalty of their fellow inmates and establishing themselves as the new prison bosses. In 1993 Brazil’s prisons were still reeling from what had until then been the biggest ever outbreak of prison violence. Less than a year earlier, 111 inmates were shot dead by police in an operation to stem a rebellion in the Carandiru prison in São Paulo city. The tragedy began as a banal fight between two rival gangs for possession of a few boxes of cigarettes. In 1993, as they assumed the dominant position within the prison gang hierarchy, the PCC adopted the discourse of unity, arguing that in the previous year’s carnage the prisoners themselves were to blame as they were fratricidal and ungoverned by an organization strong enough to keep the peace amongst them and represent them both inside and outside the prisons. An inmates’ charter was drafted, and the criminals pledged to the motto, “Brother does not kill brother. Brother does not exploit brother. The ‘Founders’ are the leaders.”[15]

While the PCC, unlike the MS-13, does not have operational U.S. branches and does not operate near a U.S. border, the structure “has a demonstrated capacity to disrupt and destabilize multiple countries in the hemisphere ­– most notably Paraguay and Bolivia – as well as the operational capacity to deliver cocaine and other illicit products to Brazil, Africa and Europe. This broad reach, now extending into Colombia, Peru and Venezuela, in turn, drives massive corruption and state collapse in multiple countries.”[16] As noted, the PCC mastered a powerful tool for recruitment, social acceptance and cultural penetration: a popular music style known as Proibidao Funk, a sub-genre of carioca music also known as Favela Funk. PCC artists, using YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and other social media outlets, share their music, singing explicitly about gang life, criminal activity, violence and murder. These songs are similar to Mexican narcocorridos glorifying drug traffickers, and are regularly played at bailes funk, the pervasive dance parties in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.[17]

Gangs’ Relationship to TCOs

The relationships between the gangs and more traditional TCOs also varies significantly from group to group. Until recently, the Mexican cartels and other transnational groups viewed the MS-13 as undisciplined and unreliable partners, limiting the group’s access to the drug trade outside of local retail sales. Now the restructured, compartmentalized MS-13, particularly the Honduras branch, is moving to consolidate itself as a cocaine and synthetic drug trafficking structure, reorganizing into a disciplined, compartmentalized and efficient transportation and retail structure for cocaine and other products. While this evolution in the drug trade is significant, it still places the MS-13 on the lower end of the supply chain and thus of the revenue streams. While able to sell multi-hundred kilo units of cocaine to Mexican cartels, the Central American group is still not in a position to access the lucrative retail markets.

In the absence of access to the cocaine retail market, the MS-13 established a monopoly on a less lucrative but valuable market driven by consumption in the region, making it less risky and less costly to move. The sale of a marijuana derivative known as krispy or kreepy is laced with chemicals that make the product far more potent than regular marijuana, but also generates about five times the profits. The advantage, in addition to the revenue streams generated, is that the market is growing rapidly across the Northern Triangle, offering the gang low-risk/high profit markets with extremely high growth potential. The revenues from the krispy trade far exceed the money gained from neighborhood extortions, and generate both community goodwill and political legitimacy.[18]

The MS-13 also took tentative but important steps to move into the cocaine trade in other ways. Since at least 2018 the organization attempted to grow coca plants in and around Santa Barbara and Copan, and building small cocaine laboratories around San Pedro Sula, Puerto Cortes and the surrounding hills in an effort to create a supply closer to home. It is not clear if there have been any large-scale successful harvests, but police who have carried out the raids on coca cultivations over time said the most recent seizure of several hundred coca plants was far more sophisticated than the earliest seizures of small, weak plants.

There is also evidence that Honduras transitioned from a transit country to one that also produces relatively small but important amounts of refined cocaine, almost all produced in territory that the MS-13 controls.[19] A March 2020 DEA complaint justifying the March 2020 arrest of Honduran national Geovanny Fuentes in Miami detailed how Fuentes borrowed $65,000 to establish a laboratory near the beach town of Omoa, which he ran from 2009-2012, producing 300-500 kilos of pure cocaine a month.[20] According to our field investigations, the laboratory remained operational under the control of the MS-13 after 2012, when the organization took over the territory of Omoa and began pioneering new drug trafficking routes to Mexico via Belize. The laboratory was later moved further up the mountains to the northwest.[21]

In contrast, the PCC focused on controlling the high-end cocaine market in Brazil and lucrative markets in nearby countries. Brazil is one of the largest cocaine consumers in the world, making the local market extremely profitable. Chile, Uruguay and Argentina are also major consuming nations on a per capita basis. Supply of processed cocaine from Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Colombia, all which share porous borders with Brazil, is both cheap and plentiful.[22]

At the same time, the PCC has both expanded into both international cocaine trafficking and other lucrative illicit activities. The PCC’s international expansion phase was clearly visible by 2017, when authorities documented international cocaine shipments through Uruguay, kidnappings and robberies in Bolivia, attempts to recruit dissident FARC combatants from Colombia, and the largest bank heist in Paraguay’s history.[23] The PCC now has operations, routes, or market access across Latin America, Europe, and Africa. An investigation by Brazil’s intelligence and security agencies found that outside Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia (the three countries with the most members), the PCC had at least 387 active members in 16 other countries.[24]

Geographic proximity, endemic corruption, and lax criminal prosecution made Paraguay an attractive haven for the PCC to expand economic initiatives, and the group established a base there by 2011.[25] In Bolivia, PCC members move freely in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, where they invest in jewels, medical clinics, ranches, and restaurants. PCC members also have been able to obtain passports from the Bolivian state, as seen in the case of PCC member Fuminho who was carrying a Bolivian passport when authorities captured him in Mozambique.[26]

In Europe, the PCC’s most important relationships are reportedly in Italy, where the ‘Ndrangheta crime group became one of the PCC’s first international trade partners since at least 2014. This relationship, documented by Brazilian law enforcement and supported by interviews with regional Italian intelligence officials, will likely open doors to relationships with other criminal structures, in part due to the Italian organization’s existing ties in Colombia, Mexico and Argentina.

Conclusions

The MS-13 gang in Central America and the PCC gang in Brazil, by exercising territorial, political, economic and military control over large parts of their home regions, have evolved into primary engines for corruption, violence, instability and state collapse in the Western Hemisphere. They provide enduring, violent criminal structures with deep roots in their home communities and growing ties to TCOs and local and national political structures. The emergence of both groups from prison structures and continuing reliance on prison leadership in both groups have created new challenges to taking effective actions against the gangs. Massive corruption in the prison systems has allowed both gangs to effectively establish the centers as secure bases of operation, where the leadership is protected rather than isolated.

Both groups operate across multiple countries in the hemisphere, multiplying the corruptive influence they exercise and the violence they are able to inflict with relative impunity. The diverse paths to power show the creativity and adaptability of the gang structures. The PCC, through its massive social media reach, has incorporated a new, socially-legitimizing tool to its ability to gain acceptance as a valid interlocutor.

The community ties grew stronger as these groups developed a more nuanced and sophisticated skills managing political, economic and social relationships. As each group nears three decades of existence, the lessons learned and high cost of living as outsiders in their own societies produced leadership changes toward finding new, less exclusionary paths to criminal livelihoods. This mature leadership -and their willingness to give up economic gains from practices such as extortion in exchange for political support- has in fact led to larger economic and political gains. As the gangs gain community support, most visibly in Honduras, they expand and secure their access to illicit economies.

Both groups are increasingly active in the global cocaine trade. While the PCC made far greater strides toward becoming a fully developed drug trafficking structure, with operations on three continents, the MS-13 has also made significant strides. The MS-13 and PCC also control other lucrative parts of multiple illicit supply chains These include control and taxation of sections of major ports, including the port of Santos in Brazil, one of the largest in the world; human smuggling and human trafficking in Central America and Mexico; a monopoly on krispy and other enhanced variations of marijuana; and advances into the distribution market of precursor chemicals for synthetic drugs. Taken together, these revenues streams provided massive new resources to the gangs. These resources rocketed them into the ranks of TCOs that pose a threat not only to their home countries but to the democratic governance of most of Latin America.

The growing infusion of revenues from criminal activities fundamentally changed the nature of gangs and their relationship to the state, as well as their relationship to regional TCOs. Rather than extorting in their home communities and engaging in dangerous but relatively local criminal activities, both groups are now important political, economic and military actors that are able to challenge and often overwhelm the state, either through force, corruption or co-optation.

The broad patterns of confronting the state that the gangs now engage in are: (1) buying and extorting their way into the formal political structure to co-opt parties, the judicial system and parts of the executive, intelligence and law enforcement communities a the highest level in El Salvador; and (2) establishing in essence separate, gang-governed territories with broad popular legitimacy, concentrated on key cocaine trafficking route while negotiating specific deals with government authorities in Honduras.

Endnotes:

  1. IISS, “El Salvador and Honduras chapters” in Armed Conflict Survey 2021, International Institute for Security (September 2021), https://www.iiss.org/publications/armed-conflict-survey/2021/armed-conflict-survey-2021
  2. Leonardo Coutinho, “The Evolution of the Most Lethal Criminal Organization in Brazil – The PCC” in PRISM 8, n.º 1, National Defense University Center for Complex Operations (February 19, 2019), https://cco.ndu.edu/News/Article/1761039/the-evolution-of-the-most-lethal-criminal-organization-in-brazilthe-pcc/
  3. Douglas Farah y Marianne Richardson, “Gangs No Longer: Reassessing Transnational Armed Groups in the Western Hemisphere” in Strategic Perspectives 38, National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies, (May 2022), https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/stratperspective/inss/Strategic-Perspectives-38.pdf
  4. For MS-13 development see: Douglas Farah y Kathryn Babineau, “The Rapid Evolution of the MS 13 in El Salvador and Honduras from Gang to Tier-one Threat in Central America and U.S. Security Interests” in Perry Center Occasional Paper, National Defense University, William Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, (March 2018), https://www.ibiconsultants.net/_upload/mediaandpublications/document/the-rapid-evolution-of-the-ms-13-march-23-2018-final.pdf. For PCC development see: CLALS, “The Rise of the PCC: How South America’s Most Powerful Prison Gang is Spreading in Brazil and Beyond” InSight Crime and American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (December 2020), https://ssrn.com/abstract=3747122
  5. Farah interview with gang members in San Pedro Sula, (Honduras: March 2022).
  6. In the mid-1990s, as the civil wars in Central America ended, the Clinton administration began deporting thousands of gang members as they completed their prison terms in the United States, primarily California, flooding the Northern Triangle with thousands of violent felons the reconfigured back into the mirror images of the gangs they had formed in the United States. For a detailed look at the policies and history of the gang deportations and enormous difficulties this policy has caused in Central America see: Ana Arana, “How the Street Gangs Took Central America”, Foreign Affairs 84, n.º 3 (May-June 2005), 98–110, https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/blogs.cofc.edu/dist/e/509/files/2012/02/Street-Gangs.pdf
  7. Press Releases, “Treasury Sanctions Latin American Criminal Organization”, U.S. Department of Treasury (October 11, 2021), https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/tg1733
  8. Based on IBI Consultants field work, (November 2021).
  9. For an in-depth look at the Salvador MS-13 ties to the Bukele administration see: Douglas Farah y Marianne Richardson, “’Corruption is the System’: Strategic challenges of the abdication of the state in the Northern Triangle of Central America”, NDU/INSS (September 28, 2021).
  10. U.S. Department of State, “Section 353 Corrupt and Undemocratic Actors Report”, United States Government (July 1, 2021), https://www.state.gov/reports/section-353-corrupt-and-undemocratic-actors-report/
  11. U.S. Department of Treasury, “Treasury Targets Corruption Networks Linked to Transnational Organized Crime”, United States Government (December 8, 2021), https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0519
  12. For details of this development see: Douglas Farah y Caitlyn Yates, “The MS 13 in Honduras and El Salvador: From Gang to Community Embedded Transnational Armed Group”, (March 28, 2020).
  13. Farah interviews in San Pedro Sula and vicinity with community and gang members, (November 2021 – March 2022).
  14. U.S. Department of Treasury, “Issuance of Executive Order Imposing Sanctions on Foreign Persons Involved in the Global Illicit Drug Trade; Counter Narcotics Designations and Designations Updates,” United States Government (December 15, 2021), https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/financial-sanctions/recent-actions/20211215
  15. Leonardo Coutinho, “The Evolution of the Most Lethal Criminal Organization in Brazil…”
  16. Douglas Farah and Marianne Richardson, “Gangs No Longer…”
  17. Paul Sneed, “Favela Utopias: The “Bailes Funk” in Rio’s Crisis of Social Exclusion and Violence,” Latin American Research Review 43(2), (2008), 57–79, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20488129
  18. Seth Robbins, “MS13 Profits from Marijuana Boom in Honduras”, InSight Crime (Honduras: November 11, 2021), https://insightcrime.org/news/ms13-profits-marijuana-boom-honduras/
  19. Héctor Silva Ávalos, “Honduras Goes from Transit Nation to Cocaine Producer”, InSight Crime (March 19, 2020), https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/honduras-transit-nation-cocaine-producer/
  20. Sworn affidavit of DEA Special Agent Ravi Baldeo in the Southern District of New York in support of the arrest of Geovanny Fuentes, (February 28, 2020).
  21. Farah field research in Honduras, (May 2020).
  22. Douglas Farah and Marianne Richardson, “Gangs No Longer…”
  23. Luís Adorno and Flávio Costa, “Preso em Moçambique, Fuminho planejava controlar tráfico na África”, Noticias Universo Online (São Paulo: April 14, 2020), https://noticias.uol.com.br/cotidiano/ultimas-noticias/2020/04/14/preso-em-mocambique-fuminho-planejava-controlar-trafico-na-africa.htm
  24. Luís Adorno, “Investigação detecta membros do PCC em EUA, Europa e América do Sul”, Noticias Universo Online (São Paulo: October 6, 2020), https://noticias.uol.com.br/cotidiano/ultimas-noticias/2020/10/06/investigacao-brasileira-detecta-ao-menos-387-membros-do-pcc-em-16-paises.htm
  25. Jen Sokatch, “Brazil Drug Gangs have Offices in Paraguay: Police”, InSight Crime, (May 19, 2011), https://insightcrime.org/news/analysis/brazil-drug-gangs-have-offices-in-paraguay-police/
  26. ED, “Bolivia se convierte en el santuario del ‘Narcosur’, el cartel de droga del PCC,” El Deber (October 18, 2021), https://eldeber.com.bo/pais/bolivia-se-ocnvierte-en-el-santuario-del-narcosur-el-cartel-de-droga-del-pcc_251510

SHARE

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The ideas contained in this analysis are the sole responsibility of the author, without necessarily reflecting the thoughts of the CEEEP or the Peruvian Army.

Image: CEEEP

NEWSLETTER