Gangland in Sao Paolo The Sao Paolo prison gang recently took over organized crime in the largest city in South America. Writer William Langewiesche talks about his recent article on the subject, published in Vanity Fair.

Gangland in Sao Paolo

Gangland in Sao Paolo

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The Sao Paolo prison gang recently took over organized crime in the largest city in South America. Writer William Langewiesche talks about his recent article on the subject, published in Vanity Fair.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

For four days last May, attackers swarmed across the city of Sao Paolo, Brazil. They torched buses, burned banks and public buildings, and focused wave after wave of assaults on the police. The city of 20 million, the largest in South America, shut down. The goal was neither loot nor revolution. The official explanation was that this was a prison riot on steroids, the work of an especially viscous gang.

Writer William Langewische went to Sao Paolo to try to figure out what happened and why. In a story published in the April edition of Vanity Fair magazine, he reports that these attacks represent a fundamental shift in a place where government is largely a fiction, and that there are more and more Sao Paolo's around the world, including in parts of this country.

William Langewische joins us now from the studio in California.

Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. WILLIAM LANGEWISCHE (Writer): Thank you very much.

CONAN: In your story, you trace the origin and growth of this gang called the PCC, which evolves from a prison soccer team into what you describe as a proto government. So let's go back to that prison. What is the PCC? How did it start?

Mr. LANGEWISCHE: Well, it's the - PCC stands in English for the first command of the capital. It started as an eight-man soccer team in 1993, inside a high security prison north of Sao Paolo, Brazil.

And there was a game. And in this game, the opposing team - also inmates -during the start of the game, the PCC team members killed all the other opposing - they killed five people. That was how they won the game, to say the least.

And from that - from the reputation of that killing at the start of the soccer game - the reputation grew rapidly in the context of a very large prison system in the state of Sao Paolo that was vastly overcrowded and very violent.

They banded together to protect themselves. And in that banding together, having done the killing, they found a solution, really, for many problems that existed for inmates in the prison system of Sao Paolo. Again, this was in '93.

Now, there are - no one really knows. They themselves don't know how many members there are, but there are about 140,000 people in the prison system, 90 percent are associated - either full members or associated with the PCC today. So we're talking about a very large number within the prison.

And more significant, in the favelas that reign Sao Paolo - Sao Paolo is a city of 20 million people, maybe, what, 10 million people living in these favelas, about half the people - they have basically risen to a position of dominance inside the favelas. So they've come out of the prisons, so to speak, and - so again, if you want to look at the numbers, nobody knows. But we're talking about a soccer team starting in '93 with eight people that has grown to several hundred thousand people now.

CONAN: And what they did - of course, they had to band together because all of those men they killed had friends and family who would've killed them in retaliation if they didn't band together.

But they established - through terror, really - they established a set of laws in a prison, which you describe - very few prison guards, vastly overcrowded, as you said, conditions are terrible, and they established a degree of political power there.

Mr. LANGEWISCHE: Political power and order. And it wasn't just through terror. I mean, I think that needs to be corrected a little bit. They were extremely violent. And if you crossed the PCC then or today, you're likely to be decapitated. I mean, they don't just kill you, they take care of the body in the most gruesome way. So they have a reputation - well deserved - for extreme violence.

But they actually apply that violence fairly infrequently. And they don't need to apply it, because they are providing other forms of discipline which people buy into. So there actually is a very - for the people within either the favelas or within the prisons, which are very much the same condition - there's undoubtedly a positive side to the PCC's presence today.

CONAN: Because as you say, once they established control, the incidents of murder and violence in these prisons went down and that they were able then to enforce this. They became drug dealers, as well, a very lucrative business inside and outside the prisons, and they made almost a miraculous transformation, as you describe it, from a pyramidical structure with a leader and soldiers below into a network.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Rather similar to al-Qaida. I mean, these people are cutting-edge, and what's really interesting about the PCC is that they are organizing themselves in ways that they themselves don't necessarily even understand but seem to be responding to the times, much as al-Qaida and other international state-less groups have.

They're not holding on to territory so much. They're not holding on to given prisons, although they do - of course, they own the prisons, they own the favellas now, but it's really not about territory, it's about communication, power and action.

It was done by the PCC in the late '90s in direct response to the state of Brazil's deregulation and liberalization of the telecommunications business, when lots of foreign cell-phone companies came in and built lots of networks all through Sao Paulo. The PCC was right on to that. And they, through a variety of means, they remade themselves around the cell phone. And they transcended physical location in that sense, and they have become pretty much impossible now to stop or even to identify largely because of the use of that technology.

CONAN: And this - it doesn't matter whether they're in prison or out of prison, they control large parts of this country. But you also say that this is a function of the other half of Sao Paolo, a wealthy, world-class city of finances and banks, and a lot of money goes in and out of that city - yet they cut themselves off from society behind armored cars and gates, and they don't pay their taxes. So they in a sense, starve the state of its resources that it might need to perform services, if it should be interested in that, for the desperately poor.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: This piece is really not so much about the PCC. I mean, it pretends to be about the PCC. It is about a much larger development worldwide, which is the erosion of the meaning of the nation-state and of government. This erosion is taking place all over the world and to various degrees.

In mean, in the United States and in Western Europe, the government is still at its strongest. In places like Brazil, it is quite weak, and of course in the Middle East and Africa, it's extremely weak - much weaker than Brazil. And also, it's in the eye of the beholder. To what degree do you want to believe in your government?

In Sao Paulo, disbelief in government is pervasive. And as you say, it's not just by the poor, who have been abandoned by the government for lack of resources and any hope of actually doing anything for them - but also by the rich who realized without realizing it, without plotting this out, that the connection that mattered to them, that matters to them today - to have good lives in Sao Paulo - are the connections to the world, to globalization, to global flows of capital. That by not paying their taxes, for instance, and this is widespread, of course, the evasion of taxes in Brazil is widespread.

By not paying the taxes, you both put money in the bank and have money leftover to hire private guards, you know, have armored cars, and live a fortressed life - which by the way is not an unpleasant life. So I am not in this article actually bemoaning the fate of Sao Paulo or crying that the sky is falling. I think that we all probably should become more aware of the limitations of government in our world today and maybe learn to embrace a future, which is as of now unknown, but certainly not necessarily a nightmarish return to anarchy.

CONAN: One of the things you do is provide a plausible explanation for what happened last May in Sao Paolo, this wave of attacks, which seemed to be on the surface pointless.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Well, that explanation is pretty complex for the radio, but let's just say that it was - clearly, the attacks had no purpose, no direct, tangible purpose. They were not asking for anything, which is, I mean, the PCC was not asking for anything, which was quite beautiful to behold because the government therefore couldn't give them anything.

The PCC controlled the situation from start to stop, and what they were really seeking was largely symbolic. It was a statement, rather than a physical thing. It was a proof of existence, a self-affirmation. It was part of a larger power struggle going - that has been going on for a long time with the state, and it was calling the state on its bluff.

I mean, in Sao Paulo, the state is largely a bluff. The state says to the gullible - whether tourists visiting or to citizens - that we are a government, we have reforms, we lock up prisoners, we do this, we do that, and it matters. The PCC was pointing out what many people in Sao Paulo know, that it really doesn't matter.

CONAN: And in a way, that the police, the forces of law and order, if you will, that they're in a way, just another and very large gang.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Right. There's that problem, as well. I mean, in Sao Paulo as part of the weakening of the state, you see a lot of corruption and violence by the police. We know that the police responded in their frustration to the attacks of May by going immediately, over the following days into the favellas, and with death squads and killing more than 450 people.

Certainly, most of those people were not PCC. They were people caught out on the streets. There was just a lot of killing going on. The state then, you know, claimed that only 100 had been killed, and they all deserved to get what they got, and I think nobody believed that.

CONAN: And at the same time, there's a prosecutor that you interview in the story, a fascinating man, who says: we cannot abide this organization. The state cannot survive if they do.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Right, and I think that that's a questionable statement. I mean, certainly the state can survive for a very long time, as long as people are willing to invest their beliefs in its fictions, and it can go through the motions, and I see the PCC is actually not directly threatening the state. It is not clearly a revolutionary movement.

It is a response to a fundamental shift that appears to be underway in the world, and it has no real purpose. It's more of a symptom. So there's no reason to believe that the state is directly threatened, though in their position, they believe it is because they don't want to be working in a fiction. They want their actions to mean something, and they want to believe in it themselves, in their personal lives.

So I can see why the man would say that. I actually believe he was overstating the problem. In the long run of course, not because of groups like the PCC but largely because of, let's say, the globalization of capital, it is clear that the nation-state as we have known it the last few hundred years is threatened. It's threatened, and this is not through - this seems to be through the force of history rather than through any revolutionary plan.

CONAN: We're speaking with William Langewische. His article, City of Fear, is published in the current issue of Vanity Fair magazine. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

At the same time, you also go and interview one of the leaders of a cell, if you will, of this PCC, people who controls areas of population of about 500,000, you say, and he is a man who claims - it was a very interesting interview - but among the other things he claims is that this is a revolutionary movement.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Right, well that was not a very believable claim. I said to him okay, it's a revolutionary movement. What's your goal, and he said we haven't gotten to that part yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yet obviously, it's well established. Is it continuing to grow?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: I don't know the answer to that. I think that the - it is -probably within Sao Paulo, has grown to the extent that it can. I would assume that it - at least if it's continuing to grow, the rate of growth is much flattened - elsewhere in Brazil, maybe by some other name, it has plenty of opportunity to grow. And I think we're seeing signs of that in Rio de Janeiro now, more recently this year. And sure, I think that there's unlimited potential for growth, and also of course, as you pointed out at the beginning of this segment, in the United States and other places. Not the PCC itself, but similar movements, similar reactions.

CONAN: And there was, as you said, at one point an offer by the national government to put their resources, the army, at the behest of - into Sao Paulo, and for political reasons it didn't - but then when there were similar problems in Rio de Janeiro, the army, the federal authorities, did get involved.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Right. Well, we know that governments respond as governments must, with the tools that they have at hand. We certainly have plenty of examples of that in recent years in the United States of sending in the army to deal with something that really the army can't very well deal with.

I mean, the military is a force best applied against the military. It is pretty much hopeless against a group like the PCC.

CONAN: And it didn't have much effect on their operation in Rio de Janeiro.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: No of course not. No, this was window dressing, of course.

CONAN: Yet at the same time, the president, President Lula, he says it's a success. Look at it, we're much better off.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Have you heard about sort of the success in Iraq? I mean, the degree of, you know, belief in the statements of the official leaders is something that I think people increasingly are - let's say the people are increasingly skeptical about these statements - and the president of Brazil makes his presidential statements.

Well, as a I said in the piece, this PCC leader in the favellas I was speaking to was - he was positively proto-presidential. I mean, he was extremely pompous and full of claims, implicit claims of power that he, himself, did not have.

CONAN: There's also a moment when you're talking with a man who's got a chart up that sort of tracks the various networks of the PCC that becomes unbelievably intricate and complicated, and you compare it to him, to a track -a similar kind of chart where American authorities are trying to follow the insurgency in Anbar Province.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Yeah, it's made by the same company. It's a software. I've seen this plenty in Iraq. These are very confusing charts because they apply lines to structures, which themselves are very confusing, and in the end, you just have a kind of a chaotic spider web, and there's really no useful information there.

CONAN: And when you point this out, he says - my heavens, what's happening in Iraq?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: And I say I don't know.

CONAN: Yeah, but something not dissimilar from what's happening in Sao Paolo.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Well I mean, there are - of course there are differences, but I think we wouldn't want to go too far with drawing a comparison. But I think we can say that what's happening in Sao Paulo today, is happening in various forms in many parts of the world. And there is something, which I call the feral zone, which are - large parts of the world are effectively, to varying degrees, completely or partially outside of government control and that a very large percentage of the world's population lives in those conditions.

Many of the people living there don't even realize it. Many of them do realize it. It depends on the severity, and also the intelligence of the person, the ability to perceive things. And this is the world in which we live, and it seems to be increasingly the world in which we live, and it seems to be a trend.

CONAN: William Langewische's article, City of Fear, appears in the April edition of Vanity Fair magazine. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Thank you.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan

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