Criminal Armed Groups Compete with the State and Each Other

By John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker

June 27, 2022

Criminal Armed Groups (CAGs) in Brazil are engaged in violent competition with each other and the state. For Brazil, these conflicts not only engender high levels of violence among all participants but lead to actual and perceived insecurity that challenges perceptions of state legitimacy. This ‘credibility gap’ creates a vacuum where criminal enterprises provide criminal governance in places instead of (and actually in addition to) the state at all levels. The result is a patchwork of ‘stratified’ sovereignty where the various actors—state and criminal—vie for competitive control.

The groups in the quest for autonomy, power, and control include the state and its political and judicial organs—such as the police and at times the military (at federal, state, and municipal levels) and criminal factions (facções criminosas),  territorial gangs (gangues), and militias (milícias) that seek to control Brazil’s streets and favelas (slums) and prisons.

The dynamics of these power struggles that amplify Brazil’s fragility and political instability is the theme of our edited collection Competition in Order and Progress: Criminal Insurgencies and Criminal Governance in Brazil.

This collective work seeks to describe and understand the quest for “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress) in contemporary Brazil. Within this multi-actor struggle, the overarching question is which entity provides order and who benefits from the relative ‘progress’ of the varying interests on the streets, in the favelas, and in the prisons. In an attempt to answer these questions, we (the editors) have divided the curated collection into two major parts.

Part I Notes contains a series of research notes published at Small Wars Journal–El Centro from 2017–2021. A total of 21 separate notes examine the range of issues including the interaction between gangs in prison and on the street (i.e., prison-street gang complexes), the evolution of high intensity bank robbery tactics known as the Novo Cangaço (or complex criminal raids in the style of historical brigands), and the impact of corruption, impunity, sustained violence and insecurity on the state and its population. These themes are expanded in Part II, Essays, and again in Part III, Appendices, covering corruption, militias, micropower in prisons, and the Tri-Border areas as criminal enclaves.

The competition between militias (initially vigilantes and police death squads) that found crime lucrative and the various gangs including the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) and its rivals — the Comando Vermelho (CV) — and others in Brazil and beyond are addressed. Several interlocking themes emerge including the consequences of low state political capacity leading to state fragility and an increasing ‘criminal’ capacity, yielding the ability of criminal enterprises to develop perceptions of de facto political legitimacy in the community allowing criminal governance.

Together, these factors enhance the potential for state transition, as described by Tilly, where ‘criminal actors’ drive changes in governance and sovereignty. The result is expanding criminal insurgency as the CAGs challenge and at times supplant the state. State fragility and criminal governance are amplified by the appearance of spiritual insurgent elements—such as evangelical criminals or social bandits (bandidos evangélicos) and the rise of the Complexo de Israel in Rio’s favelas. Communal (or intercommunal) violence accompanies gang violence as adherents of different religious traditions participate in Brazil’s crime wars. These conditions were present in the gang/militia response to the COVID-19 pandemic; gangs in the favelas imposed curfews, restricted movement, manipulated markets, and promulgated protective measures, cumulatively enhancing their power.

The state response — as exemplified by quasi-military raids and Garantia de lei e ordem (Guarantee of Law & Order or GLO) deployments — is increasingly viewed through the lens of the militarization of policing, as well as one of increased corruption and violence. There is also a rise of a gang-militia duality where gangs and militias compete for control as local militias transition into criminal organizations. When these entities are combined with transnational criminal links they can lead to issues of categorization (and legal status) regarding the resulting conflict.  Are these criminal insurgencies and crime wars best viewed as high intensity crime and civil strife, governed by penal and human rights law, or are these situations of non-international armed conflict (NIAC) governed by the lex specialis of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) or the Law of Armed conflict (LOAC)?

Competition in Order and Progress examines the competition in state-making between criminal enterprises (gangs, militias, and criminal armed groups) and the state. In addition to works by Bunker and Sullivan, often joined by José de Arimatéia da Cruz, the text includes a Prologue on Third Generation Gangs (3 Gen Gangs) by Pablo A. Baisotti, a “Foreword: A Practitioner-Academic Dialogue on Criminal Insurgency and the Crime-Terror Nexus in Brazil” by Rashmi Singh, essays by José de Arimatéia da Cruz and Becky Kohler da Cruz, Robert Muggah, Christian Vianna de Azevedo, Luis Jorge Garay-Salamanca, Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán and Guillermo Macías, Matthew Aaron Richmond, Carlos Frederico de Oliveira Pereira, Natalie D. Baker and Gabriel Leão, Andrea Varsori, and Steven M. Nogera.  Back matter includes a conclusion by the editors joined by José de Arimatéia da Cruz, an afterword by Robert Muggah and Ilona Szabó, and a postscript in English and Portuguese by Carlos Frederico de Oliveira Pereira.  The appendices include works by Paul Rexton Kan, Pablo Baisotti and Alma Keshavarz. The text concludes with a set of recommended additional readings.

John P. Sullivan, PhD, is an honorably retired lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, an associate with C/O Futures, LLC, and a senior fellow with Small Wars Journal – El Centro.

Robert J. Bunker, PhD, is the director of research and analysis, as well as a managing partner, of C/O Futures, LLC. He is also a senior fellow with Small Wars Journal – El Centro.

They are the editors of Competition in Order and Progress: Criminal Insurgencies and Governance in Brazil, a Small Wars Journal–El Centro Anthology which was published in March 2022.

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