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FLASH ALERT: RISE OF GANG VIOLENCE IN RIO GRANDE DO NORTE, BRAZIL

Lydia Baccino, Julia Tsarnas, Hae Lim Park, Giulia Provenza

Salomon Montaguth, Evan Beachler, Editor; Jennifer Loy, Chief Editor

March, 16, 2023


Rio Grande do Norte on Brazil Map[1]


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is issuing a FLASH ALERT to citizens of Brazil following the rise of gang violence in the region. As of Thursday, there have been 16 new recorded attacks, with five more cities targeted with criminal activities, including arson attacks on public buildings, businesses, and vehicles. In Rio Grande Do Norte (RN)’s capital, Natal, city buildings, courthouses, police bases, and banks were attacked. The Brazilian government has deployed 220 members from the National Security Force to RN after reports of shooting attacks in at least 19 cities. Following these attacks, RN has canceled classes and commercial activity indefinitely. The Minister of Justice, Flavio Dino, sent these troops after the RN governor, Fátima Bezerra, claimed the organized attacks appeared coordinated and that local law enforcement was overwhelmed.[2] RN’s public security secretary, Francisco Araújo states that gang members ordered the attacks from within the state’s biggest prison.[3]


CTG is on HIGH ALERT for the safety of Brazil’s citizens following the rise in gang violence in the region. Violence has included arson attacks on public buildings, businesses, gas stations, and vehicles including public buses. Gun violence has also increased, with attacks directed toward public buildings. Schools in RN and Paraiba suspended services as there is a HIGH LIKELIHOOD that buses will be targeted, with regular bus services already suspended. Local media have claimed that the Sindicato del Crimen, the most prominent drug and criminal organization in RN, is responsible for these attacks. Local media is speculating that the Sindicato del Crimen was LIKELY retaliating to a previous police operation since the attacks in Natal were quite organized. The alert for Brazil will LIKELY change from “Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution” to “Level 3: Reconsider Travel” for US citizens.


The northern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Norte entered its third night of violence on March 16 from riotings reportedly ordered by imprisoned gang members. On March 14, at least 14 cities in RN experienced violence in the early hours. Public buildings, vehicles, banks, and local stores were targeted by bullets and arson. One man was killed in a dispute with the police and two individuals were taken into custody. Law enforcement officials stated that the attacks occurred between 0000 and 0200 local time within the state. It is reported that the police had intelligence previously on the planning of the attacks but failed to stop them. In the state capital Natal, attackers shot and attempted arson at two military police stations. In Parnamirim, fire from vehicles damaged nearby electricity poles, leaving numerous homes without power.[4]

On March 15, RN’s public security secretary, Franciso Araújo announced that this series of attacks originated from RN’s biggest prison after denying inmates access to televisions, conjugal visits, and electricity. Brazil’s Justice Minister Flávio Dino also ordered a new task force to bolster in-prison security to eliminate any planning and coordination of violence from within the prisons.[5]

On March 16, the violence continued in RN, with at least two buses set on fire by attackers in Natal. The attacks that began on Tuesday, now impact 29 cities. Many cities have suspended schools and public transport in fear of additional violence.[6]

Sindicato del Crimen is a dissident group that splintered off from the First Command of the Capital (PCC), the largest criminal organization in Brazil. The Sindicato del Crimen mainly operates in RN, with another cell operating in Paraguay. Many leaders of the Sindicato del Crimen are incarcerated but are still capable of calling the shots from behind bars. The implementation of ‘tele-visit’ during the pandemic has allowed inmates to communicate with members of criminal organizations. Initial reports indicate that the Sindicato del Crimen are demanding better prison conditions for their incarcerated members.[7] Reports have stated that the prison’s rejection of requests for televisions, electricity, and conjugal visits were a major contributing factor to the ordering of violence by inmates. Conditions in prisons have been a factor in the surge of violent attacks in the past; in 2017, the Penitentiary Intervention Task Force (FTIP) was sent to RN jails following a riot that left at least 30 inmates dead.[8]

The Brazilian government is unlikely to acquiesce to the Sindicato del Crimen’s demands regarding prison conditions, likely increasing the potential of further attacks. The government likely believes that the ‘tele-visits’ directly contributed to the coordinated nature of the Sindicato del Crimen’s attacks and they will likely consider limiting these ‘tele-visits’ to family only. If the government enacts punitive policies for inmates, it will very likely escalate tensions with the Sindicato del Crimen. In the long term, this will likely lead to more organized attacks against municipal and government targets such as banks, police headquarters, military bases, and government buildings.

The coordinated nature of the attacks in RN indicates the Sindicato del Crimen very likely has extensive law enforcement connections. The Sindicato del Crimen will likely continue to provide financial incentives to corrupt officers in exchange for intelligence on police operations, patterns, and floor plans. There is a roughly even chance that the Sindicato del Crimen has connections inside the National Security Force. The deployment of these officers will likely discourage attacks in the short term, encouraging the Sindicato del Crimen to lie low until they have the opportunity to plan another high-scale attack.

CTG recommends that citizens should exercise extreme caution when traveling through RN. The US Department of State has listed Brazil as a “Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution,” meaning recreational traveling for tourists is not advised, as there is a high level of crime. Advice for those who have to travel is be aware of your surroundings, do not physically resist any robbery attempt, use caution when walking or driving at night, do not display signs of wealth, such as watches or jewelry, be extra vigilant when visiting banks or ATMs and to use caution at major transportation centers and on public transportation.[9] There should be a continued increase in police presence within RN and neighboring cities as there was in January 2022 in Jacarezinho neighborhood in order to “reclaim territory” and decrease the presence of gun violence.[10] This had success as data show that homicides between January to November 2021 were nearly 8% lower than the previous year.[11] CTG recommends the implementation of an increased police presence in the RN. The SOUTHCOM team will continue to monitor this region for any further developments. To help deter and detect future threats, group profiles can be created on prominent gangs in the region so that CTG and law enforcement can analyze the group’s behavior, tactics and recruitment to predict further movement trends.


CTG assesses that the current threat climate is HIGH given the escalating threat posed by the rise of gang violence in the region. These attacks are indiscriminate in terms of targeting both people and infrastructure, therefore all citizens should be on HIGH alert. The prisons within the region could face violent riots similar to those in 2017, resulting in thirty in-mate deaths. One of the main threats and risks associated with this event is the potential spread of violence in RN. This unrest could likely escalate throughout the country, given the people’s distrust of the government, the lack of security procedures, and the poor prison conditions. This unrest will likely take a similar form to the anti-government protests that occurred in January. These protests were focused on the main three houses of Brazilian political power and drew similarities, in terms of motive and violence, to the January 6 Capitol Hill riots seen in Washington DC.[12] It’s likely that both law-abiding citizens and incarcerated gang members may imitate and encourage acts of violence in the future. To avoid future attacks and identify potential new targets, security personnel will likely analyze the communication dynamics between individuals outside and inside the prison. Prison guards are likely to be affected by this event: they will likely update their security protocols, by increasing their responsiveness, control, and monitoring of access procedures. The coordinated attacks implemented by Sindicato del Crimen are bound to affect security personnel: it’s likely that further investigations involving senior officials and institutions will be required to reveal the social and political harmful atmosphere that has been generated.


Analysis indicates that there is a HIGH PROBABILITY that violence will continue throughout RN given the failure to meet inmates’ demands for better living conditions in prisons. It is VERY LIKELY that more public infrastructures like government buildings and public transport will be targeted to cause further disruptions to civilians. The unpredictability of gangs forming temporary truces and allies to attack against the bigger security forces implemented by Brazil will LIKELY classify this region a Level 3: Reconsider Travel from Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution.

 

[2] Brasil envió tropas militares al noreste tras los ataques narcos en 19 ciudades, Diaro de Cuyo, March 2023, https://www.diariodecuyo.com.ar/columnasdeopinion/Brasil-envio-tropas-militares-al-noreste-tras-los-ataques-narcos-en-19-ciudades-20230315-0101.html (Translated by Julia Tsarnas)

[3] 3 dead in rioting blamed on gangs in Brazil’s northeast, AP News, March 2023, https://apnews.com/article/brazil-rioting-prison-gang-violence-d9ab671d2e9face86bd817599699c0b6

[4] Rio Grande do Norte has night of terror after multiple attacks, The Brazilian Report, March 2023, https://brazilian.report/liveblog/2023/03/14/rio-grande-do-norte-terror-attacks/

[5] 3 dead in rioting blamed on gangs in Brazil’s northeast, AP News, March 2023, https://apnews.com/article/brazil-rioting-prison-gang-violence-d9ab671d2e9face86bd817599699c0b6

[6] After arrival of federal troops, violence continues in Rio Grande do Norte, The Brazilian Report, March 2023, https://brazilian.report/liveblog/politics-insider/2023/03/16/violence-rio-grande-do-norte/

[7] Sindicato del crimen disidente del PCC comete ola de ataques criminales en 14 ciudades de brasil, ABC, March 2023, https://www.abc.com.py/internacionales/2023/03/14/sindicato-del-crimen-disidente-del-pcc-comete-ola-de-ataques-criminales-en-14-ciudades-de-brasil/ (Translated by Julia Tsarnas)

[8] Gangs sow terror in Brazil cities for third night, BBC News, March 2023, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-64985010

[10] Rio de Janeiro police move to regain control of some favelas, Los Angeles Times, January 2022, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-01-19/rio-de-janeiro-police-move-to-regain-control-of-some-favelas

[11] Ibid

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