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Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 12: Brazilian Prison Gangs Attack Civil Infrastructure in Fortaleza and Other Cities in Ceará State
John P. Sullivan, Robert J. Bunker and José de Arimatéia da Cruz
Violent attacks have rocked the Brazilian state of Ceará as a coalition of gangs — including the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), Comando Vermelho (CV), and their local counterparts Guardiões do Estado (GDE), and Família do Norte (FDN) — waged a reprisal against state forces after the new prison administration announced enhanced security measures in the state prisons. The city of Fortaleza has been the focal point of the ‘violent lobbying’ Since 2 January, 205 criminal attacks have occurred in 46 cities in Ceará and about 360 individuals have been arrested. Ceara’s security forces have been reinforced with the assistance of the Polícia Rodoviária Federal (PRF or Federal Highway Police). The attacks have included bombings and arson directed against vehicles (including buses and school transportation), police stations, public buildings, bridges, businesses, and banks.
Damage to highway overpass from gang bombing.
Source: Tweet by Benjamin Lessing, 
Key Information: Anna Jean Kaiser, “‘It’s complete chaos’: Brazilian state overwhelmed by rash of gang violence.” The Guardian, 9 January 2019, :
Authorities in the state of Ceará have been overwhelmed by more than a week of violence, which has been most intense in the capital, Fortaleza, a metropolitan region home to 4 million people.
Security forces say three rival drug gangs have come together to carry out more than 160 attacks in retaliation for a proposal to end the practice of separating gang factions inside Brazil’s prisons.
Buses, mail trucks and cars have been torched. Police stations, city government buildings and banks have been attacked with petrol bombs and explosives. On Sunday, criminals blew up a telephone exchange, leaving 12 cities without mobile service. Other explosions have damaged a freeway overpass and a bridge…
Fortaleza and other cities in Brazil’s north-east have seen homicides soar in recent years, as Brazil’s most notorious gangs, the First Capital Command (known as the PCC in Portuguese) from São Paulo and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) from Rio de Janeiro began to encroach on the region, which they are disputing with the Fortaleza-based Guardians of the State, and also the Northern Family from Amazonas state.
Key Information: Luis Adorno, “Polícia investiga mensagem de facção com ameaça de atacar mais pontes no CE” [Police investigate messages between criminal factions to conduct more attacks in CE]. Noticias UOL, 5 January 2019, :
Investigadores estaduais e federais interceptaram uma série de mensagens que estariam sendo divulgadas entre criminosos das três principais facções criminosas atuantes no Ceará – PCC (Primeiro Comando da Capital), GDE (Guardiões do Estado) e CV (Comando Vermelho) com ameaças de novos ataques e instruções para os membros dos grupos. Em uma delas, os criminosos ameaçam atacar mais pontes e viadutos do estado e fazem críticas ao novo secretário de Administração Penitenciária…
Ao menos 300 homens da Força Nacional foram enviados ao Ceará para tentar conter a crise. Além da Força Nacional, cujo efetivo composto por policiais e militares desembarcou no estado entre a tarde de sexta-feira (4) e a madrugada de sábado (5), o governador Camilo Santana (PT) colocou em serviço quase 600 novos agentes. Como medida de emergência, turmas de 220 novos agentes penitenciários e 373 novos policiais militares que ainda não haviam começado a trabalhar foram mobilizadas e integradas ao esquema de segurança.
Key Information: Beatriz Jucá, “Explosivos, ônibus em chamas: Ceará é teste para cooperação entre Bolsonaro e PT” [Explosion, buses on fire: Ceará is a test for cooperation between Bolsonaro and PT]. El Pais (Brasil), 4 January 2019, :
Nos últimos três dias, o vive um clima de terror, com mais de 40 ataques supostamente praticados por que dominam o crime no Estado e em boa parte do país. Vários ônibus, além de prédios públicos e privados, foram incendiados. Um viaduto chegou a ser dinamitado e outro teve explosivos desativados pelas autoridades. Até o início da tarde desta sexta-feira, haviam sido registrados ataques em pelo menos 13 municípios cearenses e 45 suspeitos haviam sido detidos, a maioria deles em Fortaleza…
Camilo Santana está em constante diálogo com o ministro da Justiça e da Segurança Pública, Sérgio Moro, e com o general Fernando Azevedo, da Defesa. O petista solicitou 1.500 militares do Exército, 500 da Força Nacional, além de 80 agentes penitenciários à União para lidar com a crise. Até o momento, Moro autorizou o envio de 300 homens da Força Nacional ao Estado e mais 30 viaturas, além de disponibilizar o aparato da Polícia Federal, da Polícia Rodoviária Federal e do Sistema Penitenciário Nacional. Também sugeriu ao governador ampliar o gabinete de situação, que gerencia a crise, com a participação direta de órgãos federais. Camilo Santana acatou a sugestão…
Uma carta deixada próximo a um viaduto onde os criminosos detonaram dinamites nesta semana, assinada genericamente pelo “crime organizado”, diz que os ataques dos últimos dias são uma “amostra” do que pode acontecer caso as autoridades decidam “oprimir os irmãos que estão privados de liberdade”. Há suspeita de um pacto entre as três principais facções que atuam no Estado para atacar a gestão por conta das medidas anunciadas. Estas nvestidas para mostrar as forças das facções têm sido comuns nos últimos anos no Ceará. , Camilo Santana sabia que seguiria o novo mandato com o mesmo desafio do primeiro: a segurança pública e o combate ao crime organizado. Nos últimos anos, os internos vinham sendo distribuídos conforme facções. No novo mandato, o governador resolveu ir na direção oposta.
Key Information: “Criminosos explodem bomba em ponte e incendeiam transporte escolar na 13º dia de ataques no Ceará” [Criminals blow up explosives on bridge and set school bus on fire in the 13th day of attacks in Ceará]. G1 (Globo), 14 January 2019, :
Ocorreram 204 ataques criminosos em pelo menos 46 cidades desde o dia 2 de janeiro. A Secretaria da Segurança confirmou que 358 pessoas foram detidas…
Criminosos voltaram a cometer ataques criminosos neste domingo (13) no Ceará, 13º dia seguido da onda de violência que atinge o estado. Os bandidos explodiram uma bomba em uma ponte em Fortaleza, metralharam a sede da Guarda Municipal e incendiaram um ônibus escolar no município de Saboeiro, interior do Ceará. Ninguém se feriu.
Note: A map depicting over 200 attacks in Ceará since 2 January accompanies this article and can be accessed at G1 
Key Information: Jo Griffin, “ ‘Climate of panic’: bombings in Brazil reveal growing power of gangs.” The Guardian, 15 January 2019, :
…Now in its third week, the and other infrastructure across Ceará state shows no sign of letting up, with two bridges blown up and a school bus set on fire during at least eight attacks on Sunday.
It is seen not just as a direct challenge to the new president, , but also as stark evidence that Brazil urgently needs penal reform and alternatives to the tough-on-crime policies he is promising.
“This crisis was entirely predictable. This is the fourth year we’ve had such attacks. We were sitting on a barrel of gunpowder and it just needed someone to light the fuse,” says Renato Roseno, congressman for the Socialism and Liberty party (PSOL), adding that poverty, “medieval prisons”, the war on drugs, and non-existent policies for marginalised young people make the state “fertile recruiting ground” for criminal gangs.
This time the fuse was lit by an announcement on 1 January from Ceará’s new secretary of penitentiary administration, Luís Mauro Albuquerque, that he didn’t “recognise” different criminal factions in the prison system and would of dividing them based on gang allegiances, as part of new hardline measures.
Third Generation Gang Analysis
A coalition of gangs including “Brazil’s two leading criminal groups, First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) and Red Command (Comando Vermelho), as well as their local rivals, Guardians of the State (Guardiões do Estado – GDE) and Family of the North (Família do Norte – FDN), both of which have had ties to the PCC and CV”, established a truce and joined forces to conduct attacks against police and the civil infrastructure in the northern Brazilian state of Ceará. The attacks have targeted police stations, banks, highway overpasses, businesses, and power transmission lines. At least 204 attacks have occurred since 2 January 2019.
In one bombing, criminals blew up a pillar of a highway viaduct in Ceará. The bombing involved the use of dynamite and was intended to warn state officials to stop interfering with incarcerated gang members. A letter left near the incident scene signed “crime organizado” (organized crime) asserted that the attacks were a ‘sample’ of what can happen when the authorities “oppress the brothers who are deprived of freedom.” In another attack, gangsters destroyed a power transmission tower.
Photos of blast damage sustained by highway viaduct.
Source: Tweet by President Jair M. Bolsonaro,
The attacks are a response to a crackdown on gang activity in Ceará’s prisons. Under a new prison administration, gang members are no longer going to be separated according to gang faction, disturbing gangs influence and potentially redistributing relative gang power in the prisons. It is estimated that the Comando Vermelho (Red Command) controls 26 prisons, while the Guardiões Do Estado (Guardians of the State) control 23, and the Primeiro Commando da Capital (PCC or First Capital Command) controls 20. A remaining 61 prisons are not dominated by any single gang.
These gangs control lucrative criminal enterprises, including drug trafficking and bank robberies, from prisons where they have developed sophisticated command and control apparatuses reinforced by brute strength and violence inside the prison walls and on the streets. As the guardian noted, “The PCC and the Red Command are locked in a bitter fight to control Brazil’s drugs trade, and Fortaleza is seen as a strategic prize because it is the closest large port to Europe and Africa.”
This attack sequence once again not only demonstrates the willingness of criminal gangs individually to directly confront the state in order to maintain territorial control (both in prisons and on the streets) and retain freedom of movement but also collectively ally against it for their mutual benefit via a unified front. Such crime wars are representative of the pressure the liberal democratic order is actively facing from rampant criminality due to a lack of economic opportunities, wholesale disenfranchisement of youth, and corruption eroding state institutions. This dysfunctional mix is increasingly fueling the rise of populism and authoritarianism. Together these factors are a chilling proposition since the confluence of power and profit waged by these ‘third generation gangs (3 GEN Gangs)’ results in what amounts to a ‘criminal insurgency’ as these gangs marshal political and criminal power to wage ‘crime wars’ against the state.
Luis Adorno, “Polícia investiga mensagem de facção com ameaça de atacar mais pontes no CE.” Noticias UOL, 5 January 2019, .
“Ataques no Ceará: o que se sabe e o que falta saber.” G1 (Globo), 4 January 2019, .
Beatriz Jucá, “Explosivos, ônibus em chamas: Ceará é teste para cooperação entre Bolsonaro e PT.” El Pais (Brasil), 4 January 2019, .
“Criminosos explodem bomba em ponte e incendeiam transporte escolar na 13º dia de ataques no Ceará.” G1 (Globo), 14 January 2019, .
Jo Griffin, “‘Climate of panic’: bombings in Brazil reveal growing power of gangs.” The Guardian, 15 January 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/jan/15/climate-of-panic-bombings-in-brazil-reveal-growing-power-of-gangs?CMP=share_btn_tw.
Anna Jean Kaiser, “‘It’s complete chaos’: Brazilian state overwhelmed by rash of gang violence.” The Guardian, 9 January 2019, .
“Veja a cronologia dos ataques no Ceará.” G1 (Globo), 14 January 2019, .
“Veja mapa com resumo dos ataques registrados no Ceará.” Noticias CNEWS, 7 January 2019, .
 Benjamin Lessing has termed the use of instrumental violence to influence states ‘violent lobbying.’ See his tweet on this in relation to the overpass bombing directed against the viaduct of BR 020/BR 222 in Ceará: “#PrisonGang bomb in #Brazil nearly levels a highway bridge. A letter to the governor from “CRIME ORGANIZADO” on WhatsApp: “We’ve identified more than 20 bridges to bomb, we’ll continue the attacks until the new Prisons Secretary is sacked.” “It’s textbook violent lobbying.” Benjamin Lessing, Tweet from @BigBigBLessing, 4 Jan 2019, .
 Source: Google Maps, Infograph from G1 (Globo), 12 January 2019, .
 Chris Dalby, “Ceará Gang Truce Shows Brazil Government Could Be Common Enemy.” InSight Crime, 9 January 2019, .
 Attacks against Brazilian banks by gangs are a regular part of Brazil’s criminal landscape. Indeed, the PCC has a legacy of complex criminal campaigns. See John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 4: Brigands, Bank Robbery, and Brazilian Gang Evolution at Ciudad del Este and the Triple Frontier.” Small Wars Journal, 26 May 2017,
 “Criminosos explodem bomba em ponte e incendeiam transporte escolar na 13º dia de ataques no Ceará.” G1 (Globo), 14 January 2019, .
 Jair M. Bolsonaro, Tweet from @jairbolsonaro, 4 Jan 2019, “Criminosos explodiram um pilar do viaduto na BR 020 sobre a BR 222 no Ceará. Com risco de desabamento iminente, o Ministro Tarcísio, em menos de 24hs, providenciou o escoramento do mesmo enquanto aguarda solução definitiva.” .
 “Uma carta deixada próximo a um viaduto onde os criminosos detonaram dinamites nesta semana, assinada genericamente pelo ‘crime organizado’, diz que os ataques dos últimos dias são uma ‘amostra’ do que pode acontecer caso as autoridades decidam ‘oprimir os irmãos que estão privados de liberdade’,” Beatriz Jucá, “Explosivos, ônibus em chamas: Ceará é teste para cooperação entre Bolsonaro e PT.” El Pais (Brasil), 4 January 2019, .
 “Transmission tower blown up in wave of violence in Brazil.” South China Morning Post (AP), 13 January 2019, .
 Ibid, note 8.
 On the power projection capacity of prison gangs, see John P. Sullivan, “Maras Morphing: Revisiting Third Generation Gangs.” Global Crime, 2006, 7:3-4, 487-504, ; Benjamin Lessing, “Inside out: The challenge of prison-based criminal organizations.” Washington: Brooking Institution, September 2006, ; and Paul Rexton Kan, “Busted: The Micropower of Prisons in Narco-States.” Small Wars Journal, 5 December 2016, .
 See, for example, John P. Sullivan, “Criminal Insurgency in the Americas,” Small Wars Journal, 13 February 2010, ; Hal Brands, “Third Generation Gangs and Criminal Insurgency in Latin America.” Small Wars Journal, 4 July 2009, ; and Robert Muggah and John P. Sullivan, “The Coming Crime Wars.” Foreign Policy, 21 September 2018, .
For Additional Reading
Christian Vianna de Azevedo, “.” Small Wars Journal, 22 January 2018.
Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, Studies in Gangs and Cartels. London:
Claudio Ramos da Cruz and David H. Ucko, “Beyond the Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora: Countering Comando Vermelho’s Criminal Insurgency.” Small Wars & Insurgencies. Vol. 29, Issue 1, 2017, pp. 38-67.
Ioan Grillo, “Part II: The Red: Brazil” in London: Bloomsbury, 2016. .
Robert Muggah and John P. Sullivan, “ Foreign Policy, 21 September 2018. .”
John P. Sullivan, José de Arimatéia da Cruz and Robert J. Bunker. “.” Small Wars Journal, 23 February 2018.