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Prison Gangs as a Technology of Conflict

- February 15, 2013

We are delighted to welcome the following guest post by Benjamin Lessing. (ps. in the recent past we have had some confusion among commenters and people who link to our pieces written by guest bloggers (i.e. crediting us when we post on behalf of a guest poster). I am posting Benjamin’s text in blue to hopefully signal that credit should be given where it is due).


From Los Angeles and San Salvador to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, authorities have responded to urban crime and violence with anti-gang laws and crackdowns that incarcerate large numbers of gang-related youth. Whatever the true effect on crime rates, one unintended consequence has been to swell the ranks and strength of prison gangs. Hidden from public view, prison gangs are a problem politicians and pundits can usually ignore. But not always.

The Times reports a wave of terror attacks against civilian and police targets—more than 95* in two weeks—that is sweeping across the wealthy and usually pacific state of Santa Catarina, Brazil (map of attacks here). The attacks were ordered by a newly ascendant prison gang to protest prison abuses, recently revealed in a leaked video of guards torturing inmates.*

To anyone lucky enough to have visited pristine and prosperous Florianópolis, the violence comes as a shock. Few knew the state even had prison gangs. But the modus operandi is familiar. In 2006, São Paulo’s dominant prison gang, the PCC (Primeiro Comando da Capital), which offiials had declared “failed and dismantled” a few years earlier, launched three waves of synchronized attacks that brought the world’s third-largest city to a standstill.

How do prison gangs get outside affiliates to take risky actions like burning busses or shooting up police stations?

Prison gangs originally form to protect inmates from abuse by other inmates and guards. Because they keep order among prisoners, they often win a degree of informal control over inmate life. This gives them leverage over anyone on the outside with a reasonable chance of incarceration. If you think you are likely to go (back) to prison anyway, why not follow an imprisoned gang leader’s orders to ensure your good standing?

Paradoxically, policymakers’ go-to responses—anti-gang sweeps, longer sentences, and harsher prison conditions—can make prison gangs stronger. The key is that unlike street gangs, prison gangs can best reward (or punish) their street affiliates after they are imprisoned. In this stylized model, I show that prison gangs’ ability to control and coordinate is increased when potential collaborators’ chance of incarceration rises. (If police could effectively distinguish those who obey vs. those who defy prison-gang orders, there would be no problem; but the track record of anti-gang initiatives is the opposite, tending to lock up everyone who even looks like a gang member.)

The same logic applies to sentences and prison conditions: since prison gangs ameliorate the pain of imprisonment, the longer and harsher the punishment the more it pays to be in good with the gang. Overcrowding and abusive officials make belonging to a collective even more essential—if you were treated like the prisoners in that video, you might want a gang launching a wave of civilian attacks to get society’s attention too.

There’s much more more to say on the subject. One news item out of Santa Catarina, though, stands out. This new gang, the Primeiro Grupo Catarinense (PGC), not only copied the PCC’s tactics (and name), but was apparently founded by a local crime lord after cohabitating with PCC leaders in federal prison.* It’s a recurring story: early PCC leaders consciously emulated Rio de Janeiro’s older prison-gang-cum-criminal-syndicate the Comando Vermelho (CV), after spending time in Rio prisons. The CV, in turn, was founded by common criminals who gleaned organizational know-how and collective practices from the leftist militants they were jailed with during Brazil’s military dictatorship.

First-hand learning and propagation happened in the US as well. The ascension of California’s Mexican Mafia (‘la Eme’) inspired excluded racial groups exposed to Eme rule to form similarly-structured gangs; the Eme and its rivals now “control most street gangs in areas along the Southwest Border .” Leaders of one of those street gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha, were taxed and governed by the Eme in Los Angeles, before being deported to Central America and replicating the Eme model of prison-based control over outside criminal activity throughout the Northern Triangle.

These data points suggest that prison-based criminal organization has a technological quality: learnable and, under the right conditions, replicable. A common logic predicts that these conditions include overcrowding and high incarceration rates among potential gang members. Based on this, I expect to find that Santa Catarina’s inmate population swelled over the past 5-10 years, fomenting the PGC’s formation and growth. I also fear that the mass arrests now promised by officials* will ultimately reinforce its power on the streets.

A more tentative prediction: the PGC will, as other prison gangs have, begin to use that new-found leverage to organize and pacify criminal activity on the streets. In São Paulo, the PCC has imposed a  violence-reducing “criminal code of conduct” throughout the urban periphery, contributing to a huge drop in homicide (until its pact with police frayed in 2012). This mirrors the pacifying ‘governance’ of Los Angeles’ drug trade by prison gangs that Skarbeck (2011) documents, and the 2012 prison-brokered truce among El Salvador’s maras that halved the homicide rate.

Orchestrating terror attacks and reducing criminal violence are, ultimately, two sides of the same coin, increasing prison gangs’ leverage vis-à-vis the state. Smarter policies—improved targeting of collaborators, shorter but more certain sentences for lesser offenses, smaller prisons with better oversight—could help on the margin. But real progress will likely require reducing our historically unprecedented incarceration rates—perhaps by rethinking the imprisonment of non-violent drug offenders. The news out of Brazil is a geographically distant but important reminder that in many ways, the state’s problems begin, not end, when it locks up lawbreakers.

*Links to pages in Portuguese