In early April, Brazilian drug trafficker Gilberto Aparecido dos Santos, alias “Fuminho,” was apprehended in Mozambique in a joint operation of the Brazilian Federal Police, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Mozambican authorities. On the run since 1998, Fuminho was on Brazil’s “Most Wanted” list and is an old friend of Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, alias “Marcola,” the leader of Brazil’s feared Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) crime syndicate. It is natural to speculate whether the capture and trial of this kingpin will deliver a decisive blow to the PCC’s sprawling organization and operations.
Fuminho’s presence in Mozambique, more than 5,000 miles from São Paulo state, is yet another sign of the expanding reach of Brazil’s organized crime groups. In a recent comprehensive report on the PCC for the American Enterprise Institute, I wrote, “The PCC has vanquished many of its domestic rivals, enjoys a footprint in every state in Brazil, runs operations in almost every country of South America, and is now more globally minded than ever before.” The case of Fuminho demonstrates the PCC’s rapid expansion.
After his escape from prison in 1998, where he was a witness to the formation of the PCC, Fuminho fled to Bolivia’s coca-producing region of Chapare. Once there, he developed a base of operations and became a critical supplier of Bolivian cocaine and arms to the PCC.
The most likely explanation for Fuminho’s presence in Mozambique is that he sought to expand his operations into Lusophone Africa. Mozambique offered Fuminho a chance to deepen his work with the Italian crime syndicate ‘Ndrangheta and Serbian mafia groups, both of which have a footprint in São Paulo and a burgeoning presence on the African continent.
How did we get here?
In early 2018, Americas Quarterly documented the PCC’s expansion within Brazil and into neighboring countries. The group had just completed the so-called “Heist of the Century” in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, penetrating a highly fortified private security building and making away with between $10-40 million. Faced with renewed competition from its historic rival, Comando Vermelho, after the breakdown of a two-decade truce, the PCC has continued its campaign of aggressive expansion to conquer new territory, form new alliances, and co-opt or absorb existing and less organized criminal factions into its ranks.
As I write in the report: “While the PCC’s international foothold stretches from Colombia to Argentina and includes most countries in between, Paraguay and Bolivia offered the most natural jumping-off point for beginning the PCC’s transnational activity.” To this day, the expansive jungle border with Bolivia and the lawless tri-border area comprised of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, continues to be prime operating territory for the PCC’s criminal enterprise.
The PCC has proselytized successfully among not only Brazilians but also Paraguayans, demonstrating an ability to recruit among Spanish and Guaraní-speaking populations.
Recently, Paraguay’s corrupt prison system has been overrun by the PCC. The group operates in two-thirds of Paraguay’s prisons, which are notoriously corrupt and ill-prepared for such a violent criminal takeover. The PCC has proselytized successfully among not only Brazilians but also Paraguayans, demonstrating an ability to recruit among Spanish and Guaraní-speaking populations. Today, it counts around 500 members in Paraguay, growing an eye-popping five-fold in just the first six months of 2019.
Just as important, the PCC is integrated into Paraguay’s illegal economy, which, according to one study, could comprise as much as 40% of gross domestic product. For instance, Paraguay’s contraband chemicals market allowed the PCC to diversify and insert itself into a growing illegal pesticides trade. Pesticides now represent the fastest growing contraband traversing the Brazil-Paraguay border. One study estimated that up to 20% of pesticides sold in Brazil are sourced illegally. Another creative source of revenue for the PCC is systematic car theft. Often, PCC members drive stolen vehicles to the Paraguayan and Bolivian borders and exchange them for raw materials, cocaine paste or weapons.
The PCC also operates farther north and counts partnerships with members of the FARC along the Colombian border. The group possesses nascent cells in southern Venezuela as well. Venezuela’s descent into criminality benefits the PCC because it increases the value of its territorial hold over some of Brazil’s northern states. In the long term, it could provide the PCC access to Caribbean routes for illicit narcotics shipments.
To manage a proliferation of partnerships, the PCC chairs a group called “Narcosur,” a powerful confederation of transnational criminal groups. The group aims to connect cocaine-producers in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, and shuttle products to ports in Europe, such as Antwerp. A mere five years ago, Brazil failed to register as a major point of embarkation for ships ferrying cocaine to Europe. In a sign of the PCC’s strength in trans-shipment, Brazil now registers as the top point of embarkation. Last year, a quarter of the cocaine seized in various European cities arrived on Brazilian ships.
The discovery of a PCC-Africa nexus is not a surprise. In the past, the arrest of prominent money launderers working on behalf of Hezbollah in the city of Foz do Iguaçu afforded the PCC an opportunity to partner with Hezbollah and access illicit markets in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. As I explain in the report: “The PCC’s ability to continue expanding outward will depend on its ability to continue dominating Brazilian territory, whose main value-added resides in its geographic proximity to Africa, Europe, and the Middle East (where a kilogram of cocaine can fetch as much as $100,000, significantly more than in the U.S.), thus serving as a major cocaine bridge through the ports of Fortaleza, Santos and Suape.” Brazilian Federal Police report that during a year-long investigation, Fuminho moved “dozens of tons” of cocaine from Brazil to Africa and Europe.
Continued trans-nationalization is the future
In early 2018, Fuminho rose to the apex of his power. After arranging the assassinations of high-ranking members of the PCC – Rogério Jeremias de Simone, alias “Gegê do Mangue,” and Fabiano Alves de Souza, alias “Paca”– allegedly for embezzling money from the organization, Fuminho vaulted into the position of top non-incarcerated member of the group. What would have been his most audacious act – springing Marcola from prison in a bold plot that involved mercenaries and helicopters – was foiled by the Brazilian Federal Police.
As Fuminho is extradited from Mozambique to stand trial in Brazil, one question is what his arrest will mean for the future of the PCC. Allan de Abreu, a respected Brazilian reporter on crime and corruption, asserts that the “arrest of the greatest supplier of cocaine to the PCC threatens the group’s hegemony on the streets and in prisons,” adding that “the era of Marcola is closer to ending.” Indeed, the PCC’s bottom line is likely to suffer in the wake of Fuminho’s arrest. What seemed an inexorable march across South America may start to flag, at least until the PCC’s leadership reorganizes itself.
To be sure, Fuminho’s arrest and Marcola’s move to a maximum security prison in Brasília last year mean the group faces significant hurdles ahead. It is always difficult for a group like the PCC to replace a sophisticated criminal operator like Fuminho – a true jack-of-all-trades, with sufficient knowledge of drug production, money laundering and business acumen to establish and manage profitable partnerships in far-flung places.
Although Fuminho’s capture is definitely a reason to celebrate, it says more about the growing capacities of Brazil’s Federal Police to develop strong intelligence leads and conduct joint operations with other law enforcement agencies, rather than portending any withering of the PCC. As I document at length in the report, the PCC is an incredibly resilient, well-diversified criminal organization. Its considerable range of illicit activities, sophisticated organization and advancing transnational footprint should serve to mitigate its losses and help it recover in Fuminho’s absence. After all, incarceration has not stopped the PCC from building and operating a vast criminal empire in the past; with thousands of loyal members outside prison, the PCC will likely retain a critical edge over its rivals. In short, reports of the PCC’s dismantling in the wake of Fuminho’s arrest are greatly exaggerated.
Berg is a Latin America Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)