Brasil Paralelo

Forrest Hylton

The Universidade do Estado da Bahia, located in the complex of favelas in central Salvador known as Cabula, has had to close twice in recent weeks because of murders in the vicinity, including forty shots fired at a young man at one of the main bus stops that staff and students use to get to the university. A colleague who teaches there heard shots on the main avenue while teaching last week. They often take the bus home around the time of the bus stop shooting.

Police are investigating, but these types of shootings, which usually stem from factional competition over turf and cocaine sales, are now happening across the city. Nearly all the shooters and the victims are young pardo and preto men from favelas like Cabula. Bahia has been the most violent state in Brazil for five years running, with Salvador at its centre.

As I’ve written before, my university, the Universidade Federal da Bahia, has also had to close several times because of gang warfare in neighbouring favelas. There were eleven shoot-outs in Federação in January, with three deaths. Mafias from Rio and São Paulo moved in during the pandemic. All these groups are imbricated into, and were born out of, the prison system that the military dictators forged during the Cold War, which, like the army and the police, was not reformed under the 1988 Constitution.

The strategy of using elite police units over which state governors have limited control to combat local drug gangs led to the creation of the murder, extortion and kidnapping ring known as the ‘Crime Bureau’, run by senior state security officers. One of them, Ronnie Lessa, a neighbour of Jair Bolsonaro’s in a condominium complex in Barra da Tijuca, is accused of being the triggerman in the 2018 murder of Marielle Franco, a city councillor who was exposing the ties between organised crime and politics in Rio. Lessa was in communication with the Bolsonaro residence throughout the day of the murder, for which the Brazão brothers, Domingo and Chiquinho, two politicians long associated with Rio’s militias, and the former head of Rio’s municipal police, Rivaldo Barbosa, have all been detained.

Barbosa was appointed by General Braga Netto the day before Franco’s murder. Braga Netto was Bolsonaro’s running mate in the 2022 presidential election, and is implicated in the invasion of the Praça dos Três Poderes on 8 January 2023. During Carnaval, Bolsonaro was so frightened of being arrested that he took refuge in the Hungarian embassy, though he has since boasted that should someone try to serve a warrant for his arrest, he would ‘go down shooting’ – or perhaps not, since he walked the comment back immediately.

The situation is contradictory, even paradoxical: on the one hand, the machinery of justice is moving, however slowly, to prosecute Bolsonaro and members of his entourage, including army generals, for the events of 8 January, as well as the killers of Marielle Franco and those who organised and paid for her murder. Yet on the other, without an organised left proposing alternative public security policies, and convincing people of their viability and desirability, mafias and drug gangs are rapidly expanding their reach. (Given the current configurations of regional power, it makes no difference that Lula is in the Planalto.) I witnessed this happen in Colombia from 2010 onward, as cocaine export mafias, facing increasing seizures and transport bottlenecks, prioritised increasing consumption in the domestic youth market.

Given record levels of production in Colombia in recent years, as in Ecuador, there is more cocaine in Brazil that can profitably be exported, and micro-traffic in the domestic market requires control of territory. While Rio’s mafias have long been fractious and divided, the city and state of São Paulo were until recently controlled almost exclusively by the Primeiro Comando da Capital. The PCC now has its own territory in Salvador, but is also allied with outfits such as Bonde de Maluco (BDM), the largest local gang, which has aspirations toward monopoly, against the local wings of Rio’s Comando Vermelho (CV). Another group from Rio, Terceiro Comando Puro, grew out of – and is perpetually at war with – the CV.

Salvador is fast becoming Rio in miniature. In São Paulo, a Military Police initiative in Baixada Santista, codename ‘Operation Summer’, carried out under the orders of the governor, Tarcísio de Freitas, a possible successor to Bolsonaro, has left 56 people dead.

The recent murders of several gang leaders suggests that São Paulo is beginning to see the effects of the first serious division within the PCC since its birth in the early 1990s. It has long been led by Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, aka Marcola, but now Roberto Soriano, aka Tiriça; Abel Pacheco de Andrade, 49, aka Vida Loka; and Wanderson Nilton de Paula Lima, 45, aka Andinho, have openly challenged Marcola’s leadership, plotting to expel and murder him. (All of them are in prison in Brasília.)

Expelled by the PCC’s sintonia final, or board of directors, they formed a new organisation called the Primeiro Comando Puro, anchored in Campinas and the ABC region, and allied with the CV in Rio and across the country. As the brains behind the logistics of cocaine transport, storage, and distribution, Tiriça and the others allegedly have the loyalty of what the Harlem rapper Rakim once called ‘the heavyweight hitters’ – PCC captains moving real weight, and commanding foot soldiers, in both the domestic and export markets.

Should the new alliance between part of Rio’s mafia and part of São Paulo’s mafia hold, and should the PCP defeat the PCC, the landscape of organised crime and drug trafficking in Brazil will change dramatically, in Salvador da Bahia as well as São Paulo and Rio. PCP bocas de fumo, or local drug dens, are already being sold off cheaply, presumably to buy weapons, and foot soldiers from Rio are going to São Paulo for training with more advanced weaponry; they are also reported to be here. It seems as if the ship of public security policy – which Brazilians consider the most important political issue, according to all the latest polls – is struggling to set the sails, leave the harbour or send telegrams, while organised crime operates on the high seas with speed boats, outboard motors and satellite communications.