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Critical Niches: A Comparative-Evolutionary Study of Gang Territoriality in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo

Conflict
Latin America
Organised Crime
Qualitative Comparative Analysis
Andrea Varsori
Kings College London
Andrea Varsori
Kings College London

Abstract

São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are the two largest and wealthiest cities in Brazil; they also are host to the country’s largest gangs, respectively the First Command of the Capital (PCC) and the Red Command (CV). These criminal groups share remarkably similar origins. Both were born in overcrowded jails, within a context of extremely poor living conditions and persistent state and prisoner violence. Their historical trajectory, however, has been remarkably different. While the PCC grew to become Brazil’s largest criminal group, with a sophisticated structure, a clear chain of command, and a nation-wide presence, the CV splintered, degraded, and forsake any attempt at re-organising, remaining locked in territorial disputes inside the Rio metropolitan region. This paper aims at finding the reason for this divergence. To this end, it will adopt an evolutionary/ecological outlook that focuses on what impacts the most on an urban armed group’s chances of surviving. Within this theoretical frame, the paper will propose the concept of “critical niche”: the type of territory that an urban armed group must control to ensure continued survival in the city. By identifying each group’s critical niche, the paper will be able to explain the reasons for the divergence between the two gangs. On the one hand, survival for São Paulo’s PCC depended solely on the jailside (prisons), its only critical niche, which the group managed to dominate by its eighth year of existence. Rio’s CV, instead, shifted decisively to drug trafficking early in its history, getting thus to depend on two critical niches: jailside and slumside. The attempt at dominating the latter came at the expense of the former: a mistake that left the group unprepared to the fractures that separated the older jailside leaders from the younger slumside bosses. This analysis will be supported through an extensive survey of historical documents, such as newspaper articles, trafficker biographies, journalistic reports, and anonymous denounces.