by SWJ Editors
Third-Generation Gangs and Criminal Insurgency in Latin America
by Dr. Hal Brands, Small Wars Journal
In May 2006, a previously obscure gang known as the First Capital Command (PCC) threw Sao Paulo into chaos. Over a period of five days, the PCC attacked hundreds of public buildings and private businesses, murdered policemen and civilians, and brought life in South America's largest city to a standstill. The scope of the violence clearly overwhelmed state and local authorities, and order was restored only after negotiations with the gang's leader, a man named Marcola. All told, the incident demonstrated that the PCC—rather than the government—effectively ruled large parts of Sao Paulo. As one Brazilian security official put it, "The sad reality is that the state is now the prisoner of the PCC."
Roughly a year and a half earlier, another Latin American gang staged an even more shocking display of its power and ruthlessness. In December 2004, members of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, stopped a bus in Chamalecon, Honduras, and proceeded to massacre 28 passengers. As Ana Arana relates, the killings were as notable for their apparent randomness as for their gruesomeness. "The slaughter had nothing to do with the identities of the people onboard; it was meant as a protest and a warning against the government's crackdown on gang activities in the country."
Both the December 2004 incident in Honduras and the May 2006 attacks in Sao Paulo are part of a broader trend in Latin America: the rise of sophisticated, internationally-oriented, and extremely violent gangs. These "third-generation gangs," as they are often called, participate in the drug trade and myriad other illicit economies, and use violence and corruption to undermine the state. They increasingly straddle the line between crime and insurgency, and constitute a dire and growing threat to internal stability in the region. This phenomenon is most pronounced—and most remarked upon—in Central America, but it has spread well beyond the isthmus and now plagues countries from Mexico to Brazil.