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Brazil’s prison gangs are launching massive terrorism attacks. This explains why

- January 28, 2019
Firefighters put out flames on a burning truck and car during a wave of gang violence in Brazil’s northeastern Ceara state, in the city of Fortaleza, on Jan. 3. (Alex Gomes/O Povo/AFP)

Just one day after his inauguration, Brazil’s right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro faced his first public-security crisis. On Jan. 2, prison gangs launched a terrorism campaign throughout Ceara state, paralyzing the capital city, Fortaleza. Although he has deployed federal troops, violence continues: 278 attacks in 55 cities over 26 days (and counting), with bridges and overpasses bombed, electricity knocked out in some neighborhoods, schools and gas stations set on fire, and dozens of buses burned.

What triggered the attacks? Another New Year’s inauguration: Ceara’s newly reelected Gov. Camilo Santana installed a hard-liner as secretary of prisons, who promised to end segregation of prisons by gang, proclaiming he would not “recognize” them.

In response, the gangs unleashed their attacks and made specific demands, as in this “Public Notice” to Santana:

… We want this new secretary out of our state … All we want is for our rights to be respected and for everything to remain as it is without change.

… We have in sight more than 20 bridges to explode, we will continue the attacks, until this new secretary is removed.


It’s clear why prison gangs like the status quo

Segregation by gang was introduced in 2017 to stop the inmate bloodshed after inter-gang prison massacres swept Brazil’s north and northeast.

Yet segregation empowers gangs by giving them “home base” prisons. These have become status symbols, the hallmark of a real facção criminosa (criminal faction), as Brazil’s sophisticated prison gangs are known. To faction leaders, desegregation would be both humiliating and physically dangerous.

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But why have warring factions come together to launch terrorist attacks?

The factions are engaged in what I call violent lobbying: pressuring leaders over policy issues, using violence.

Violent lobbying, I argued in my 2017 book “Making Peace in Drug Wars,” is less common than another logic of crime-state violence, violent corruption. Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s “plata o plomo?” (“the bribe or the bullet?”) threats exemplify violent corruption: coerce police into taking bribes in exchange for nonenforcement of the law.

But sometimes criminal groups seek to change the law itself. Escobar sought to have extradition banned; Ceara’s gangs want to stop desegregation. Just like legal interest groups, these criminal organizations lobby decision-makers on behalf of their desired policies. The difference is they use violence to do so.

Violent lobbying doesn’t look like regular lobbying — but it shares key dynamics

First, lobbying is costly, so it’s worth pursuing only if the desired policy is one that decision-makers might plausibly adopt. Ideally, it should be one the public supports or just doesn’t care about. In Escobar’s Colombia, extradition was unpopular and eventually banned — and within hours, Escobar turned himself in.

For Santana, who vowed to “get even harder on crime,” sacking his prison secretary would be politically toxic. But Santana has good reasons to maintain segregation. Many citizens will not follow the details of prison policy, helping the factions’ cause, and even hard-liners don’t want inmate blood on their hands.

Second, when lobbying succeeds, it benefits everyone in the affected industry, giving firms incentives to free-ride on others’ efforts. Industry lobbies solve this collective action problem by offering “selective incentives” to contribute through trade associations and other legal entities. For criminal groups, cooperation is much harder — one reason lobbying is rarer than corruption. Outright turf war among gangs or cartels usually makes violent lobbying unviable.

But something worth lobbying for can help groups overcome collective action problems. A few hints from  Santana before his re-inauguration triggered a gang truce to coordinate violent lobbying, as this Dec. 23 statement from one faction attests:

We ask … all criminals to engage in a cease-fire with our filthy enemies, and we will fight against the state, against the oppression that is about to come to Ceará.

This truce is temporary. … Once we solve this problem with the state, we will go back to our fight against our filthy enemies …

[Brazilian voters wanted change — and they got it. Now what happens?]

Brazil’s criminal factions do this a lot

Ceara’s current crisis isn’t unique. My team has documented 135 similar waves comprising 1900 individual attacks across Brazil since 2006. It’s not clear what percentage were successful, since policy demands and state concessions aren’t always public, and some waves may primarily signal strength. But the sheer number of orchestrated attacks suggests that factions get their way some of the time.

If this is terrorism, why are there so few civilian casualties?

So far, the 2019 Ceara attacks have left four civilians wounded and none killed. That’s on purpose. When the gangs burn buses — the most common type of attack in our data — they almost always remove passengers first. Early warnings like this Jan. 2 statement from Ceara’s Comando Vermelho gang also help minimize casualties:

We don’t intend to bring fear to the community, but rather improvements. … From 6AM tomorrow, don’t leave your house, as we will be fighting head-on with the government of Ceará, stores will be closed … avoid public transit.

Factions fill their communiques with appeals to human and legal rights, including serving one’s time in physical safety. Here again, the theory of violent lobbying is illuminating. Although the attacks are meant to be paralyzing, the factions take pains to ensure the public blames the government, not them.

Iron-fist responses will almost surely backfire

Brazil already has the world’s third-largest prison population, yet its urban slums are largely governed by prison gangs. That’s no coincidence. As I’ve argued before at TMC, mass incarceration gives prison gangs leverage over anyone who expects to land behind bars and wants to be in good with the gangs when they do. Rising incarceration rates create a pervasive expectation of imprisonment among targeted groups, transforming prison into a normal life event and expanding the population vulnerable to prison-gang influence.

Brazil’s leaders can claim not to recognize the factions, or can even encourage police to kill gang members extrajudicially. But the fact remains, as the factions warned Santana, “We have much more manpower than the state, we have men on the street ready to fight for our rights.”

Note: The numbers of attacks have been updated as of the publication date. 

Benjamin Lessing (@BigBigBLessing) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of “Making Peace in Drug Wars: Cartels and Crackdowns in Latin America” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).