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Local Orders Paper Series

BROOKINGS

PAPER 3 | September 2016

Inside Out:
The Challenge of Prison-Based
Criminal Organizations

BENJAMIN LESSING

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This paper is part of the Brookings seminar, “Reconstituting Local Orders.” The seminar
is directed by Brookings Senior Fellows Vanda Felbab-Brown, Shadi Hamid, and Harold
Trinkunas, who are grateful to the Foreign Policy Director’s Special Initiative Fund for its
support.

Brookings recognizes that the value it provides to any supporter is in its absolute commitment to quality, independence, and impact. Activities supported by its donors reflect this commitment,
and the analysis and recommendations of the Institution’s scholars
are not determined by any donation.

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ABOUT THE RECONSTITUTING LOCAL ORDERS PROJECT
Led by Brookings Senior Fellows Vanda Felbab-Brown, Shadi Hamid, and Harold Trinkunas,
the Brookings Seminar on Reconstituting Local Orders seeks to better understand how domestic political order breaks down and is reconstituted. It draws out policy implications and
recommends more effective action for local governments and the international community.
It examines these issues by bringing together top-level experts and policymakers.
The present disorder in the international system is significantly augmented by the breakdown of domestic order across a number of key states. Around the globe, the politics of identity, ideology and religion are producing highly polarized societies and deepening conflicts
among non-state actors and between non-state actors and the state. In the Middle East, the
Arab Spring disrupted long calcified political systems in ways that are still producing unpredictable effects on the regional order. The collapse of political order in Libya has wide-ranging consequences for governance across the Sahel, intensifying Mali and Nigeria’s fragility
and highlighting the many deficiencies of their states. Meanwhile, Russia’s annexation of
Crimea was facilitated by a breakdown of political order in Ukraine, and Russia’s aggressive external posture also partially reflects and compensates for its internal weaknesses. But
even emerging powers such as India and Brazil face profound and persistent governance
problems, including in public safety and the rule of law. Among the topics explored in the
Seminar are the construction of institutions and counter-institutions in the Middle East and
South Asia; the role of external interveners and local militias in conflict settings; and forms
of governance in slums and prisons, such as by criminal groups.
The Seminar is a collaborative research space that serves as a launching pad for cutting edge
debate and research around questions of local and transnational order. The core of the analytical and policy-prescriptive exploration focuses on how political and social orders are
reconstituted, the resulting impact on regional order and the international system, and what
roles the international community should play. Among the products of the Seminar are analytical and policy papers as well as shorter articles and blog posts that examine cross-regional
comparisons and identify policy implications and recommendations.

Inside Out:
The Challenge of Prison-Based
Criminal Organizations
BENJAMIN LESSING

Introduction

C

ontemporary prison gangs present new and confounding challenges
for states. In Central America and Brazil—and even in the U.S.—
prison gangs have evolved from small predatory groups to sophisticated
criminal organizations with the capacity to organize street-level crime,
radically alter patterns of criminal violence, and, in the extreme, hold governments hostage to debilitating, orchestrated violence and disruption.
Unlike traditional armed groups though, prison gangs cannot be directly
neutralized through repressive force, since most of their leadership is already incarcerated. Indeed, common hardline state responses like aggressive policing, anti-gang sweeps, and enhanced sentencing can inadvertently
swell prison gangs’ ranks and strengthen their ability to coordinate activity
on the street. Breaking up prison-gang leadership has proved particularly
counterproductive, often facilitating prison gangs’ propagation throughout
state-and national-level prison systems. Alternative approaches like gang
truces that exploit prison gangs’ capacity to organize and pacify criminal
markets—and indeed whole peripheral regions—can be very effective at reducing violence. However, they are politically dicey (and hence unstable),
and ultimately leave the state partially dependent on prison gangs for the
provision of order, both within and beyond the prison walls.
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. Indeed, there are three distinct
problems for policy-makers to grapple with. First, as the research discussed here shows, many typical responses have unintended and deeply

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Inside Out: The Challenge of Prison-Based Criminal Organizations

counterproductive consequences. In particular, anti-gang crackdowns,
which often raise incarceration rates, lengthen sentences, and worsen prison conditions, can actually help prison gangs establish authority outside
prison, organize criminal markets, and orchestrate mass violence and protest. In many cases, prison gangs come to play a major role in providing
order in peripheral communities, imposing codes of conduct that significantly reduce property crime and violence among residents.

“Many typical
responses have
unintended and deeply
counterproductive
consequences.”

Second, while there is evidence that these mass-incarceration policies
helped prison gangs establish their authority, both within prison and on the
street, it is not clear that simply reducing incarceration rates or improving
prison conditions would neutralize that authority. The social orders that
prison gangs have built in Central America, Brazil, and even parts of the
U.S., rest on real institutions of varying degrees of formality: from shared
language and symbols to written constitutions, and even corporate and
state-like administrative structures. Like all institutions, these are likely to
be “sticky,” i.e. resilient to turnover in members and leaders, and adaptable
to changing local conditions.1
Finally, it is not clear that rolling back, undermining, or neutralizing gang
authority—even if it were possible—would produce positive outcomes.
States were not good at providing order in prisons or peripheral areas before sophisticated prison gangs arose, and there is little reason to believe
that they can entirely supplant gang authority in the short or even medium
term. Smashing the authority of prison gangs could lead to outbreaks of
brutal infighting or a chaotic scramble for power.
As such, this paper recommends a containment approach that strikes a
balance between hardline repression and accommodation. Policymakers
should aim to: increasingly acknowledge gang presence and power, rather
than deny or obfuscate it; set rules of the game that take advantage of gang
leaders’ ability to pacify criminal markets while demarcating realms where
the state can slowly supplant gangs; use repression more strategically to
1

2

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John M. Hagedorn, “The Global Impact of Gangs,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 21, 2
(2005) 153–169. Hagedorn defines “institutionalized gang” as one that “persists despite changes in
leadership (e.g., killed, incarcerated, or “matured out”), has organization complex enough to sustain
multiple roles of its members (including roles for women and children), can adapt to changing
environments without dissolving (e.g., as a result of police repression), fulfills some needs of its
community (economic, security, services), and organizes a distinct outlook of its members (rituals,
symbols, and rules).”

Inside Out: The Challenge of Prison-Based Criminal Organizations

enforce these rules, creating incentives for gang leaders to avoid violence
and anti-social behavior; and put greater state, civil-society, and international resources into recuperating state authority in non-criminal areas
where gangs currently hold sway.
The paper begins with background on contemporary prison gangs, which
we might more accurately refer to as prison-based criminal organizations.
I then present findings of research into the link between state law-enforcement and carceral policies and prison gangs’ capacity to project their power onto the street in three leading cases: California; El Salvador; and São
Paulo, Brazil. I follow with a discussion of the uses to which prison gangs
use this capacity (organizing criminal activity, providing parallel power in
peripheral communities, and orchestrating / curtailing violence) as a bargaining chip. I conclude with analysis and policy recommendations.

“Contemporary,
sophisticated prison
gangs use the prison
system—and their
control over life within
it—as a key resource for
organized criminal, and
increasingly political,
activity.”

Background
The first thing to note is that the very term “prison gangs” is inadequate.
Groups like California’s Mexican Mafia, Central America’s maras, and the
facções criminais (“criminal factions”) of Brazil may have arisen in a context
of small, predatory inmate groups, but they have all expanded into large organizations operating in multiple prisons, where they order the day-to-day
life of prisoners under their “jurisdiction.” Moreover, all of these groups
wield significant power outside prison, where, at a minimum, they organize
and tax street-level criminal activity. All of these groups have affected a restructuring of local criminal markets, generally bringing fragmented and
autonomous local gangs and outfits under a centralized authority. More accurate, if clumsier, terms would be “prison-based criminal organizations”
or “prison-organized crime.” Regardless of what we call them, however, it
is critical to understand that contemporary, sophisticated prison gangs use
the prison system—and their control over life within it—as a key resource
for organized criminal, and increasingly political, activity.
To understand how incarceration can come to help criminal groups, it
is useful to distinguish three dimensions of prison-gang growth.2 First,
2

B
 enjamin Lessing, “The Danger of Dungeons: Prison Gangs and Incarcerated Militant Groups,” in
Small Arms Survey 2010: Gangs, Groups, and Gun, (Geneva: Small Arms Survey, 2010).

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successful gangs consolidate power by eliminating or subjugating rivals,
taking control of key aspects of prison life (including contraband flows),
and winning the capacity to mete out rewards and punishments to other
inmates. While the early stages of consolidation may witness brutal struggles for primacy, once a gang has achieved it, violence generally decreases
rapidly.3 The hegemonic gang imposes rules that reduce violence, or make
it more predictable, in ways that benefit not only members but unaffiliated inmates and even prison staff. While officials have probably always
and everywhere worked with prisoners to maintain internal order, in Latin America, where staff-to-prisoner ratios are often low, many aspects of
prison management are routinely and fully outsourced to inmates.4 When
sophisticated gangs develop and take over these functions, it grants gang
leadership the capacity to mete out punishments and rewards to any inmate within entire wings or prison units under their control.
One way that state policy can inadvertently aid prison-gang consolidation
of power is through the common practice of segregating inmates by gang.
While such segregation literally saves lives—and attempts to forcibly desegregate gangs have led to brutal prison massacres—it simultaneously
provides gangs with local hegemony within their assigned wings or units.
Moreover, incoming prisoners are generally assigned to units based on
their gang affiliation, which is often inferred from a prisoner’s home neighborhood and/or racial background. This method of segregation has two
perverse effects. First, it puts weakly or un-affiliated first-time offenders
under gang custody and tutelage.5 Second, and perhaps more importantly,
it brings a broad range of street-level actors—anyone who might be sent
to a given gang’s wing if incarcerated—under that gang’s “coercive jurisdiction.” Neutral wings usually exist, but are often seen as less desirable by

Carlos Amorim, Comando Vermelho, a História Secreta Do Crime Organizado (Rio De Janeiro:
Editora Record, 1993), 93; Tomás Andino Mencía, “Las Maras En La Sombra,” in Pandillas Juveniles
Transnacionales En Centroamérica, México Y Estados Unidos (Mexico City: ITAM, 2006), 56; Chris
Blatchford, The Black Hand: The Bloody Rise and Redemption of “Boxer” Enriquez, a Mexican Mob
Killer (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2008), 6.; Fernando Salla, “De Montoro a Lembo: As Políticas
Penitenciárias Em São Paulo,” Revista Brasileira De Segurança Pública 1, no. 1 (2007): 82.
4
James B. Jacobs, Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1978); Gresham M. Sykes, The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison (Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958).
5
A
 uthor’s visit to and interview with the director of Neves Jail, Rio de Janeiro, August 29, 2009;
Human Rights Watch, Real Dungeons: Juvenile Detention in the State of Rio De Janiero, (New York,
NY: Human Rights Watch, 2004), 33; Jerome H. Skolnick et al., “The Social Structure of Street Drug
Dealing,” American Journal of Police 9, no. 1 (1990): 24; USAID, Central America and Mexico Gang
Assessment (Washington, DC, 2006), 15.
3

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inmates since they often house rapists and other stigmatized and threatened prisoners. Attempts to make neutral wings attractive enough to wean
away weakly affiliated members is risky, since it could induce true members to lie their way in, and even take over such wings.
A related issue is prison-gang propagation: the spread of a prison gang to
multiple prisons within a penitentiary system. The most common channel
of propagation is the transfer of gang members from their “home” unit to
other prisons, but it can also occur through prisoner release and re-imprisonment, as well as “mergers” and “franchising” involving initially unaffiliated groups. While the evidence is still anecdotal, propagation very
frequently involves the physical presence of at least one prisoner with firsthand experience of consolidated prison-gang control, either by his own
gang or another. Perhaps because of the centrality of face-to-face contact,
propagation occurs most easily within legal jurisdictions, such as state-level prison systems, where prisoner transfers are common. Propagation
across state and national lines is more rare, but clearly occurred in the case
of the maras, whose leaders were deported in the 1990s from California,
where they had lived under the Mexican Mafia’s prison-based rule.6

“If prison gangs only
consolidated and
propagated within
prison systems, they
would remain largely a
‘corrections’ issue. It is
their ability to project
power beyond the prison
walls that transforms
them into a first-order
public-security concern.”

If prison gangs only consolidated and propagated within prison systems,
they would remain largely a “corrections” issue. It is their ability to project power beyond the prison walls that transforms them into a first-order
public-security concern. Projection of power amounts to influence over
street-level actors, and can take many forms, including: imposition of rules
or codes of behavior, definition of turf boundaries, levying of taxes, and
issuing orders for specific acts of violence (including individual hits and
orchestrated attacks). The ability to project power, I argue below, is fundamentally linked to state policy: prison gangs wield power over people on
the street who expect to be incarcerated, and peoples’ expectations about
future incarceration—especially people with links to gangs—are largely a
function of policing and sentencing policies.

6

 l Valdez, “The Origins of Southern California Latino Gangs,” in Maras: Gang Violence and Security
A
in Central America, ed. Thomas Bruneau, Lucia Dammert, and Elizabeth Skinner (Austin, TX:
University of Texas Press, 2011).

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Anti-Gang Crackdowns Can Strengthen Prison-Gang
Projection of Power

“If a street-level actor’s
chances of going to
prison are going up
whether he follows
prison-gang orders or
not, he has more, not
less, reason to obey.”

Why do people on the streets obey the orders of imprisoned gang leaders,
many of whom may spend the rest of their lives behind bars? A former
drug boss I interviewed in Rio de Janeiro put it simply: “Whatever you do
on the outside, on the inside you’ll have to answer for it.’’7 Packed into this
statement are two key assumptions: “You” are likely to return to prison at
some point, and when you do, you will be at the mercy of gang leaders.
These same assumptions are explicit in the testimony of a gang specialist from the Los Angeles Sheriff ’s Department: “the Eme [i.e. the Mexican
Mafia prison gang] controls the prisons and the [street] gangsters know
that eventually they’ll end up in prison and be subject to sanctions and
retribution if they don’t obey the Eme while they’re on the street.”8 If projection of power depends on non-incarcerated actors’ likelihood of (re-)
incarceration, then increased incarceration rates could actually strengthen
prison-gang power on the street. To investigate this possibility, I developed
a game-theoretic model to test the effects of common policy interventions
on prison gangs’ capacity to recruit and tax outside actors.9 The policies
are “pro-incarceration” in the sense that they increase the certainty (i.e.
likelihood) and / or severity of incarceration. The latter category includes
both longer sentences as well as harsher prison conditions, whether deliberate (e.g. solitary confinement) or inadvertent (e.g. due to overcrowding).
Increases in certainty generally involve enhanced policing, often together
with anti-gang laws that permit police to arrest large numbers of suspected
gang members.
A key question is how targeted such crackdowns are. If targeted crackdowns perfectly discriminated those who obey gang orders from those
who do not, they would create a deterrent to obedience. But real-world
“targeting” is usually far from perfect, and if a street-level actor’s chances
of going to prison are going up whether he follows prison-gang orders or
not, he has more, not less, reason to obey. Moreover, as prison conditions
worsen with overcrowding, the protection prison gangs offer on the inside

Author interview, August 17, 2009.
Tony Rafael, The Mexican Mafia (New York: Encounter Books, 2007), 326.
9
B
 enjamin Lessing, A Hole at the Center of the State: Prison Gangs and the Limits to Punitive Power,
CDDRL Working Paper No. 143 (2013).
7
8

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Incarceration Rate: Prisoners / 100,000 Residents

Figure 1: Incarceration Rates, Anti-Gang Initiatives, and Prison-Gang Projection of Power
500
450
400

Mexican Mafia
Imposes Taxation & Drive-by Ban
on L.A. Latino Street Gangs

350
300
250

PCC’s Terror Attacks
Shut Down
São Paulo for Four Days
Mara Gangs Threaten
Mass Bus Burning,
Shut Down San Salvador

Anti-Gang Crackdown

STEP Act

200
150

Mano Dura Law

100

50
1980 1982 1984 1986 1988 1990 1992 1994 1996 1998 2000 2002 2004 2006 2008 2010 2012
California

São Paulo

El Salvador

becomes even more valuable. Thus the model predicts that pro-incarceration policies will strengthen prison gangs on the street when:
•	

Prison gangs are sufficiently consolidated to effectively reward
compliance and punish defection within prison; and

•	

Additional arrests are insufficiently targeted at street-level actors
who comply with prison-gang edicts vs. those who do not;

•	

Especially if those policies inadvertently worsen prison conditions, perhaps through overcrowding.

Empirical evidence that mass incarceration policies can promote prison-gang projection comes from three leading cases of prison-gang growth
and projection in the Western Hemisphere—California, El Salvador, and São
Paulo—which all followed strikingly similar trajectories (Figure 1). In particular, the conditions listed above were present in all three cases: incarceration rates were rising, prison conditions were worsening, crackdowns were
poorly targeted, and gangs had already consolidated power within prison.
In California, the 1988 STEP (Street Terrorism Enforcement and Protection) Act criminalized gang membership and enhanced sentences for
gang-related crimes, vastly increasing police discretion and reinforcing

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Inside Out: The Challenge of Prison-Based Criminal Organizations

an already strong rise in the incarceration rate. The Mexican Mafia prison
gang, also known as the Eme, had long controlled prison wings by that
point, but in 1992, it definitively established control over LA’s Latino street
gangs with its so-called “Eme edict.” The edict imposed turf delimitations
and taxes, and outlawed drive-by shootings, which were drawing too much
police attention. Since then, the Eme has used this power to coordinate
violent turf wars against black gangs in LA and rival Latino gangs in northern California (now coordinated by their own respective prison gangs).
El Salvador’s Mano Dura and Super Mano Dura policies were harsh anti-gang initiatives that criminalized gang membership and granted police
wide discretion in detaining suspected members. These laws drove incarceration rates sharply upward, but largely failed to distinguish street-gang
members from non-members.10 Scholars agree that this period led to a
significant increase in the organization and hierarchy of the MS-13 and
M-18 mara gangs.11 Their power on the street, however, only became fully
clear in 2010, when imprisoned leaders of the main groups joined forces
to induce—via threats of mass violence against city buses by street-level
affiliates—a transportation strike that shut down the capital for three days,
demanding improved prison conditions and the veto of an anti-gang law.12
Finally, in São Paulo, the generally hardline policies of a sequence of governors led to a massive expansion of the carceral system. This process intensified in the wake of the 2001 “mega-rebellion,” in which 21 prisons, all
under the control of the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), rebelled
simultaneously. While this event clearly signaled the extent to which the
PCC had consolidated its control and propagated throughout the São Paulo
state prison system, few observers realized that the organization had been
building up power in the streets. Then, in May 2006, the PCC launched a
synchronized wave of attacks. First, simultaneous riots broke out in some
90 prisons. Then, after many police had been deployed to prison sites,
street-level collaborators launched hundreds of attacks on civilian, police,

S ara L. Van Hofwegen, “Unjust and Ineffective: A Critical Look at California’s STEP Act,” Southern
California Interdisciplinary Law Journal 18 (2009).
11
J osé Miguel Cruz, “The Transformation of Street Gangs in Central America,” ReVista, Winter
(2012); Wim Savenije, Maras Y Barras: Pandillas Y Violencia Juvenil En Los Barrios Marginales
De Centroamérica (San Salvador: Facultad Latinoamericana De Ciencias Sociales, Programa El
Salvador, 2009).
12
S onja Wolf, “Mara Salvatrucha: The Most Dangerous Street Gang in the Americas?” Latin American
Politics and Society 54, no. 1 (2012): 86.
10

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and urban-infrastructure targets. The capital was brought to a standstill for
days, until authorities met with PCC leaders and made key concessions, at
which point the attacks abruptly stopped.
More rigorous testing of this model is difficult, since we cannot directly measure prison gangs’ capacity to project power; we can only be sure
of such capacity when we see it used. Moreover, many officials practice
“gang denial,” downplaying the power and even existence of gangs until
events force a public recognition of their power.13 Thus we cannot interpret
the absence of evidence of prison-gang projection as evidence that prison
gangs are unable to project.
That said, some critical comparative evidence comes from Nicaragua,
which shares several factors often blamed for the rise of the maras: a history of civil war, easy availability of firearms, widespread poverty and unemployment, and a long-standing presence of neighborhood gangs.14 Yet the
maras made no inroads into Nicaragua, its native gangs never developed
into prison-based criminal organizations, and its homicide rate remains
far lower than its northern neighbors.15 While the relative lack of returning
mara deportees from the U.S. certainly played a role, there were equally
dramatic differences in anti-gang policies. Nicaraguan officials, many of
them former insurgents, pioneered a preventive approach that directed repression only at the more serious organized crime outfits, while bringing
vulnerable youth into community programs.16 This suggests that repression was also better targeted, and as a result, incarceration rates remained
relatively low.
If Nicaragua’s innovative policy approaches indeed made it more resilient
to prison-gang growth, the question arises whether similar policies could
weaken or eliminate prison gangs in places like El Salvador or even Brazil.
This is certainly an interesting avenue for future research. However, there
G
 eorge W. Knox, The Problem of Gangs and Security Threat Groups (STG’s) in American Prisons and
Jails Today, (Peotone, IL: National Gang Crime Research Center, 2012).
14
José Luis Rocha and Dennis Rodgers, Gangs of Nicaragua (Managua: Impresiones Helios, 2008).
15
J osé Miguel Cruz, “Government Responses and the Dark Side of Gang Suppression in Central
America,” in Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America, ed. Thomas Bruneau,
Lucia Dammert, and Elizabeth Skinner (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011); Deborah
Yashar, Violence: The Illicit, the Complicit, and Competition in Contemporary Latin America,
(presentation at UC Berekely May 14, 2012).
16
J osé Luis Rocha, “Un Debate Con Muchas Voces: Pandillas Y Estado En Nicaragua,” Temas 64
(2010): 33; Cruz, “Government Responses and Gang Suppression.”
13

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“Contemporary prison
gangs use projection of
power in ways that are
problematic for states,
even if they sometimes
reduce crime rates.”

are theoretical reasons to doubt that reducing incarceration rates alone,
or even in conjunction with policies for getting youth out of gangs, would
significantly reduce prison-gang power. The mechanism hypothesized here
may not be easily reversible, because once a gang has established authority
over a given territory or population, the actors involved may continue to
follow its rules even when its direct coercive power diminishes. This is particularly true of gangs that impose social orders that are perceived as “fair”
by their subjects. For example, in an ongoing study of the PCC’s operations
in São Paulo state, Lessing and Denyer-Willis (2016) find that the organization rarely punishes its members harshly or arbitrarily for mistakes, relying
instead on transparent rules, trial by jury, and mild suspensions that nonetheless, through extensive record-keeping, create a permanent “stain.” Such
a system—which as I discuss below probably contributed to a massive drop
in homicides—may well seem fair and just to its “subjects,” and hence not
require inordinate amounts of coercive power to maintain.

Prison Gangs Use Projection of Power To Do Dangerous
Things
If prison gangs used projection of power only to tax street gangs, then increased incarceration might merely raise prison gangs’ relative criminal
income. However, contemporary prison gangs use projection of power in
ways that are problematic for states, even if they sometimes reduce crime
rates. This section details three sorts of uses, drawing on the case of Rio’s
Comando Vermelho (CV) as well as the examples above to illustrate.
Organization of local criminal activity
Local illicit markets, especially urban retail drug markets, tend to be fragmented and unstable. Street gangs and small operators rarely establish
thoroughgoing control beyond small pieces of home turf, despite significant investments in arms and soldiers.17

17

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In some cities, deliberate efforts have been made to push retail drug trafficking toward a delivery
basis, which de-territorializes the market and seems to lead to less violence; John M. Hagedorn,
“Neighborhoods, Markets, and Gang Drug Organization,” Journal of Research in Crime and
Delinquency 31, no. 3 (1994); Jerome H. Skolnick et al., “Social Structure Street Drug Dealing”;
Steven D. Levitt and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, “An Economic Analysis of a Drug-Selling Gang’s
Finances,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 115, no. 3 (2000).

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Yet as Lessing (2008, 2010) and Skarbek (2011) have both argued, there
are potential efficiency gains, and hence an economic surplus to be extracted, for any group capable of providing criminal governance. In the
1980s, Rio de Janeiro’s Comando Vermelho (CV) used a code of mutual-aid among its members to systematically oust or subdue incumbent
drug retailers from a majority of the city’s favelas, and then hold that territory despite decades of extreme police repression.18 Comparing four Brazilian cities, Lessing (2008) finds Rio’s local monopolies on drug retailing
unique, and plausibly due to the CV’s prison-based governance structure.
Like the CV, California’s Eme and São Paulo’s PCC have both used their
coercive power to organize street-level drug markets. Yet whereas the
Eme’s power is limited to areas dominated by southern Californian Latino gangs, the PCC operates throughout the entire urban periphery of São
Paulo as wholesaler, tax collector, and arbiter of disputes among myriad
small-scale retailers.19 It has imposed a violence-limiting “lei do crime”
(“criminal code of conduct”) through an astonishing system of trials, via
cell-phone conferencing, before a jury of jailed PCC elders.20
In El Salvador (as well as Guatemala and Honduras) the maras organized
extortion rackets, perhaps because retail drug markets were quite small in
these countries. Leaders introduced hierarchies, stricter and savvier codes
of behavior (e.g. prohibiting gang tattoos), and a system of prison-coordinated and -taxed extortion of businesses and public transportation known
as la renta (the rent).21
Mara leaders explicitly attribute this shift in structure and behavior to increased incarceration under anti-gang measures:

Carlos Amorim, Comando Vermelho; William Da Silva Lima, Quatrocentos Contra Um: Uma
História Do Comando Vermelho (Labortexto Editorial, 2001).
19
I nterview, former São Paulo Special DA for Organized Crime, September 1, 2009; David Skarbek,
“Governance and Prison Gangs,” American Political Science Review 105, no. 04 (2011); Gabriel De
Santis Feltran, “Crime E Castigo Na Cidade: Os Repertórios Da Justiça E a Questão Do Homicídio
Nas Periferias De São Paulo,” Caderno CRH 23, no. 58 (2010); Daniel Veloso Hirata, Sobreviver Na
Adversidade: Entre O Mercado E a Vida., PhD diss., Universidade De São Paulo, 2010.
20
V
 era Da Silva Telles and Daniel Veloso Hirata, “Ilegalismos E Jogos De Poder Em São Paulo,” Tempo
Social 22, no. 2 (2009): 53; Andre Caramante, “Tribunal Do Crime’ é Negócio, Diz Promotor,” Folha
de S. Paulo, October 4, 2008; Gabriel De Santis Feltran, “Crime E Castigo Na Cidade.”
21
J uan J. Fogelbach, “Gangs, Violence, and Victims in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras,” San
Diego International Law Journal 12, no. 1 (2010): 439; Jeannette Aguilar and Marlon Carranza, Las
Maras Y Pandillas Como Actores Ilegales De La Región, Informe Estado De La Región (San Jose:
Programa Estado De La Nación, 2008), 23.
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“Before [the Mano Dura mass-incarceration policy] began it was
different. We hadn’t gotten to seeing things collectively. The system
has united us… like it or not, we cannot look at things individually,
because they haven’t treated us individually, nor have they pursued
or locked us up individually.”22

“In Rio de Janeiro,
an entire generation
of favela residents
has been born and
raised under the
armed dominion of
prison-coordinated
drug syndicates, while
the state’s presence
was largely limited to
intermittent, corrupt,
and highly lethal police
invasions.”

Parallel Power
Prison-gang authority can extend to entire peripheral regions and populations, providing order, justice, and other public goods, and effectively supplanting state authority. In Rio de Janeiro, an entire generation of
favela residents has been born and raised under the armed dominion of
prison-coordinated drug syndicates, while the state’s presence was largely limited to intermittent, corrupt, and highly lethal police invasions.23
As a founding CV member explained, “We catechize the favela residents
and show them that the government cannot help them or see their side of
things. So we give food, medicine, clothes, textbooks.... We pay for doctors,
funerals... We even resolve domestic disputes; there can’t be trouble or else
the police will enter.”24
Southern California’s Eme has made minor efforts to influence larger peripheral populations, coordinating offensives by affiliated Sureño street
gangs against black residents in Los Angeles and Norteños governed by the
Eme rival La Nuestra Familia in central California.25 Maras, by contrast,
play a dominant role in neighborhoods throughout El Salvador, as well as
Guatemala and Honduras.26

J osé Miguel Cruz, “Central American Maras: From Youth Street Gangs to Transnational Protection
Rackets,” Global Crime 11, no. 4 (2010): 393.
23
E
 nrique Desmond Arias, “The Dynamics of Criminal Governance: Networks and Social Order
in Rio De Janeiro,” Journal of Latin American Studies 38, no. 02 (2006); Luke Dowdney, Children
of the Drug Trade: A Case Study of Children in Organised Armed Violence in Rio De Janeiro (Rio
De Janeiro: 7Letras, 2003); Elizabeth Leeds, “Cocaine and Parallel Polities in the Brazilian Urban
Periphery: Constraints on Local-Level Democratization,” Latin American Research Review 31, no. 3
(1996).
24
Carlos Amorim, Comando Vermelho, 162.
25
B
 rentin Mock, “L.A. Blackout,” Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report, Winter ed., vol.
124, (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2006); United States of America v. Rios et Al (District Court,
Central District of California February, 2011); Julia Reynolds and George Sánchez, “Norte-Sur:
California’s War in the Fields,” El Andar, Winter 2003.
26
J oanna Mateo, “Street Gangs of Honduras,” in Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central
America, ed. Thomas Bruneau, Lucia Dammert, and Elizabeth Skinner (Austin, TX: University of
Texas Press, 2011); Elin Cecilie Ranum, “Street Gangs of Guatemala,” in Maras: Gang Violence
and Security in Central America, ed. Thomas Bruneau, Lucia Dammert, and Elizabeth Skinner
(Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011).
22

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The PCC has relentlessly expanded its presence throughout São Paulo’s urban periphery since 2000, and its dispute-resolution and order-provision
services now extend to a broad population poorly served by state institutions.27 As one detective noted: “[T]he PCC is now judging small-claims
cases, even domestic disputes. It’s clogging up our wiretaps, which capture
fewer and fewer [serious crimes].”28
Orchestrated Protest and Violence as a Bargaining Chip
These tactics are the most obviously debilitating to states, and can work
both inside and outside prison. The CV—whose founding members
watched while the leftist militants they were housed with successfully protested their way to amnesty—regularly organized hunger strikes and petitions, often coercing the larger inmate population into adherence.29 The
CV has also instigated prison riots, often in multiple prisons simultaneously, as a means of pressuring or punishing officials.30 On the outside, the
CV has frequently induced its foot soldiers in favelas to carry out city-wide
shutdowns of businesses, burn buses, and attack public buildings and police stations, usually to pressure officials to slacken carceral policies.31
São Paulo’s PCC has extended and perfected these tactics. The 2006 PCC
attacks, more than just a destructive affront to state authority, were an effective political cudgel: they not only forced concessions in carceral policy,
but helped defeat PCC antagonist Gerardo Alckmin (then-governor of São
Paulo and architect of its mass incarceration policies) in his 2006 bid to
unseat President Lula da Silva. When I asked what the PCC gained from
their attacks, São Paulo’s former DA for Organized Crime told me, “power,
in the political arena. Now they must always be taken into consideration;
everyone is afraid.”32 A similar sentiment was expressed by Salvadoran observers in 2015, when maras once again used orchestrated attacks on buses
and threats to foment a four-day transportation strike that affected over

C
 iro Biderman, Renato Sergio De Lima, and João Manoel Pinho De Mello, Pax Monopolista and
Crime: The Case of the Emergence of the Primeiro Comando Da Capital in São Paulo, January 10,
2015; Gabriel De Santis Feltran, “Crime E Castigo Na Cidade.”
28
“Escuta: PCC Faz Papel De Polícia E Justiça Em SP,” Redação Terra, February 17, 2008.
29
I nterview, former Director of Rio de Janeiro State’s penitentiary system, July 8, 2009; William Da
Silva Lima, Quatrocentos Contra Um.
30
Interviews, former imprisoned CV and Terceiro Comando leaders, August 2009.
31 
R. Ben Penglase, “The Shutdown of Rio De Janeiro. The Poetics of Drug Trafficker Violence,”
Anthropology Today 21, no. 5 (2005).
32
Interview, September 1, 2009.
27

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Inside Out: The Challenge of Prison-Based Criminal Organizations

one million residents33: “if the gangs decide to do it again, nothing suggests
that the State is able to prevent it.”34

“The prison gangs’
capacity to both
orchestrate mass
violence and attenuate
homicide and other
violent crimes gives
them enormous leverage
over state officials.”

But the threat of violence is only one side of the coin. The PCC’s imposition
of its “criminal code of conduct” on the underworld—indeed, on much of
the urban periphery—is widely thought to have contributed to an outsized
drop in homicide in São Paulo. Between 1999 and 2007, homicide rates fell
from 44 to 15 per 100,000, a 66 percent reduction that was the largest of
any Brazilian state and well above the nationwide variation of -3.7 percent.
The transformation is epochal: São Paulo city is now the least violent state
capital in Brazil. And though there is an active academic debate as to precisely how much the PCC contributed to this drop relative to demographic
and other factors, there is both econometric and ethnographic evidence
that it played a significant role.35 In any case, wiretap recordings reveal that
the PCC leadership takes credit for the homicide drop, and thus likely sees
it as a bargaining chip to use against the state. It is indeed hard to imagine
officials not worrying that anti-PCC actions could lead to an outbreak of
violence.
Likewise, El Salvador’s maras followed their 2010 show of force with a
March 2012 prison-brokered truce that produced a stunning 60 percent
drop in the national homicide rate—testifying to imprisoned leaders’ control over street-level behavior (Figure 2). Though the government initially
denied any role in the truce, top mara leaders were returned from isolation to low-security prisons and allowed cell phones, among other concessions.36 Once the homicide drop became undeniable, the government
began to take credit, inviting security ministers from Guatemala and Honduras to discuss exporting the Salvadoran ‘experiment.’37 Yet the truce always elicited vocal opposition from multiple sectors, often motivated by
the fear that negotiating with the maras would further empower them.

Nelson Rauda Zablah and Gabriel Labrador, “Pandillas logran sostener pulso con el gobierno por el
transporte público.” El Faro, July 29, 2015.
34
Roberto Valencia, “Diez repuestas que ayudan a comprender por qué las maras colapsaron el
transporte público.” El Faro, July 31, 2015.
35
C
 iro Biderman, Renato Sergio De Lima, and João Manoel Pinho De Mello, Pax Monopolista and
Crime; Gabriel De Santis Feltran, “Governo Que Produz Crime, Crime Que Produz Governo: O
Dispositivo De Gestão Do Homicídio Em São Paulo (1992-2011),” Revista Brasileira De Segurança
Pública 6, no. 2 (2012).
36
“Central America’s Gangs: A Meeting of the Maras,” The Economist, May 12, 2012.
37
T
 ania Membreño, “Ministros De Seguridad C.A. Analizan Tregua De Pandillas,” La Prensa Grafica,
May 24, 2012.
33

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Figure 2: El Salvador’s Mara Truce and its Unravelling
1,000

Gang Leaders
Returned to Max.
Security Prison

900
800

Truce Begins

700
600
500

Truce Formulator
Removed From President-elect
Office
Publicity
Rejects Truce

400
300
200
100
0
Jan-07

Jan-08

Jan-09

Jan-10

Jan-11

Key Events

Jan-12

Jan-13

Jan-14

Jan-15

Jan-16

Homicides Per Month

Between 2013 and 2014, the truce slowly unraveled. One key reason was
the removal from government, by Supreme Court decree, of the truce’s
formulator in 2013. But more systemic factors also played a role, in
particular the inability of both the gangs and the government to “deepen”
the truce with further mutual concessions.38 For gang-leaders, ordering the
rank and file to stop killing was relatively low-cost, but stopping extortion
(street-members’ primary source of revenue) would have stretched leaders’
authority to the breaking point. Similarly, officials could offer imprisoned
leaders low-security facilities, family visits, and other benefits through immediate executive actions, but job programs to replace extortion income
and changes in policing practices would have required legislative approval,
in a context of sharp public disapproval of such concessions. During this
“unraveling” period, maras announced several attempts to strike new truces, warning of the potential violence if no truce were struck. Accordingly,
since El Salvador’s new president definitively ruled out the truce in 2015,
transferring many mara leaders to solitary confinement where they could
no longer communicate with the rank and file, violence has skyrocketed.
Nonetheless, the maras have continued to make overtures of new truces,
which have been ephemeral, but may have contributed to short-term reductions in homicides. Conversely, as noted above, in 2015 they instigated
another transportation strike through orchestrated bus-burnings.

38

Charles M. Katz and Luis E. Amaya, The Gang Truce as a Form of Violence Intervention (San
Salvador: FUNDE, 2015).

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In sum, prison gangs’ capacity to both orchestrate mass violence and attenuate homicide and other violent crimes gives them enormous leverage over
state officials.

Policy Implications

“Local orders in
peripheral communities
often depend centrally
on criminal groups.”

Local orders in peripheral communities often depend centrally on criminal groups; the unique challenge of prison-based groups is that the state’s
go-to response against criminal groups—mass incarceration—can significantly strengthen gang power on the streets. Indeed, few if any street gangs
ever achieved the kind of region-wide social control wielded by São Paulo’s
PCC or the Salvadoran maras. The ultimate goal of policy, I would argue,
is to move from a local order that is based on gang power to one that flows
from healthy citizen-state relations. Transforming gang-ruled communities into war zones is unlikely to achieve this goal, but so too is abandoning
these areas to criminal groups. What can be done?
A few policy recommendations are easy to identify: increased information-sharing between prison administrations and law-enforcement; more transparency
about how prisons are actually run so that policymakers and researchers can
better measure prison-gang influence; and administrative reforms that remove
incentives for officials to deny the presence or power wielded by prison gangs.
However, none of these recommendations address the deeper, more complex problem that the rise of prison-based criminal organizations raises for
public policy. I discuss these three core challenges below, and offer some
thoughts on where this leaves governments.
1.	 Policies can have serious unintended consequences. The history
of prison gangs is awash with stories of policies having counterproductive effects. Perhaps the clearest cases include the original formation and consolidation of prison gangs—an unintended consequence
of growing prison populations and, probably, insufficient oversight.
Other examples include:

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•	

Propagation of prison gangs via the transfer of gang leaders to different units;

•	

The deportation of Central American gang leaders from California in the 1990s; and

Inside Out: The Challenge of Prison-Based Criminal Organizations

•	

The Brazilian military government’s decision in the 1970s to group
leftist militants, together with common criminals, which ultimately produced the CV.

This article has argued that another critical unintended consequence
is likely to occur:
•	

Pro-incarceration policies like anti-gang sweeps and enhanced
sentencing can increase prison gangs’ ability to project power onto
the streets. This in turn can lead to the further growth of prison gangs as criminal organizations, trigger important structural
changes in criminal markets, and give prison gangs important
sources of leverage over state actors.

This last unintended consequence is particularly pernicious because
it is neither obvious nor easy to demonstrate empirically. Further research is required to determine how universal this effect is, and what
factors may minimize it. But it is certainly consistent with the empirical record, and helps explain the enormous accumulation of street-level power demonstrated by prison-gang actions in El Salvador and
Brazil. If true, it raises the possibility that many of these states’ go-to
policy responses may inadvertently contribute to the rise of powerful
non-state actors.
2.	 Unintended consequences of policies may not be easy to reverse:
Just because a policy inadvertently helps prison gangs form, spread, or
project power does not mean that reversing that policy will undo prison-gang authority. For example, once a prison gang has established itself throughout a prison system via the transfer of its leaders, reuniting
the leaders in a single unit is unlikely to eliminate the gang’s presence
in other units. Prison gangs seem to form through face-to-face transfer of know-how; once that transfer has occurred, it is too late. More
broadly, prison gangs impose systems of social order that ultimately
make their “subjects” better off than under anarchy or gang war. These
social orders are likely to be resilient to policy-based efforts to undermine gang authority. In particular:
•	

Even if mass incarceration policies contribute to prison-gang projection, reducing incarceration rates, improving the targeting of
anti-gang measures, or improving prison conditions may not prevent further projection of power.

3.	 Prison-gang projection of power creates acute trade-offs among
policy objectives: Even if policy-makers can neutralize or fragment
prison-gang authority, it is not clear that this is the correct policy objective. Prison gangs, for better or worse, have brought order to criminal markets that are traditionally fragmented, contentious, and often

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quite violent. In so doing, they have demonstrated a capacity for pacifying peripheral zones beyond that of virtually any state policy intervention on record. Eliminating prison-gang authority in these regions
would likely create a power vacuum that states are congenitally poor at
filling; disastrous levels of urban violence and chaos could result. On
the other hand, accommodative approaches risk further empowering
prison gangs.

“Governments would
be better served by
seeking a middle way
between brute-force
anti-gang repression and
purely accommodative
approaches—in short, a
containment strategy.”

This dilemma is well-illustrated by the history of the Salvadoran mara
truce, and the rapid shifts in state policy, from one extreme to another,
that shaped it. In 2012, a government-mediated truce among prison-based
maras led to a massive, sustained reduction in homicides. Though the government initially denied any involvement, going so far as to discount the
truce’s role in violence reduction, it later did an about face, proudly taking
credit, and inviting neighbors to study the policy. Four years later, a new
president not only dismissed the truce as ethically suspect and strategically misguided, he launched an increasingly militarized crackdown on the
maras, and has actually passed legislation that outlaws negotiation with
gangs, and even criminalizes “calls for dialogue.” Neither policy approach
has proven clearly successful. Although the truce proved unsustainable
and quickly unraveled, the post-truce crackdown has produced violence
on a scale not seen since El Salvador’s civil war.
Governments would be better served by seeking a middle way between
brute-force anti-gang repression and purely accommodative approaches—in short, a containment strategy. Such an approach would frankly acknowledge gang power on the streets and within prison, and tender what
Schelling (1967, 72) called “diplomatic recognition” to gang leaders as important interlocutors. At the same time, state policy could transparently aim
to confine prison-gang authority to purely criminal activity, while slowly
supplanting gangs’ power within peripheral communities. This would likely
require both economic and social development interventions—rebuilding
schools, community health centers, and so on—as well as shifting policing
practice away from pure repression toward prevention and community involvement. Repressive force can still play a key role, but states should aim
to deploy it more strategically, punishing gangs for overstepping behavioral
and territorial limits, and creating incentives for gang leaders to put their
authority to good uses. Gangs in turn are less likely to actively resist state
incursion into “their” territory if the state has made clear it is not trying to

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exterminate them, but rather to provide public goods for largely law-abiding communities. Such an approach is admittedly easier to implement when
gangs derive their income from drug trafficking (which for all its negative
impact is ultimately voluntary) than extortion (which necessarily involves
violence against residents). Yet even in the latter case, the state is more likely
to succeed through “salami tactics”—slowly pushing gangs into less destructive, but less lucrative activities, while slowly building up its own legitimacy in neglected communities—than by attempting to incarcerate or kill
its way out of the problem through sheer repressive force.
To supporters of hardline crackdowns, these policy suggestions will surely
appear naïve, unethical, or both. Policies of containment or détente are
always politically hard to swallow, and even more so when the “enemy”
in question is a purely criminal group with no overt political ambition or
ideology. Negotiating with rebels or communists may be hard, but negotiating with criminals is taboo. This taboo was briefly broken in El Salvador,
and has now been restored and codified into law; elsewhere, governments
simply deny that the delicate dance of concessions and tacit agreements
constitutes negotiation. Yet the reality is that governments are locked in
a strategic interaction with prison-based criminal organizations with the
power to alter patterns of crime and violence at a national scale. Eliminating prison-gangs is not a short-run option. Learning to manage them is the
best path forward.

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“Negotiating with rebels
or communists may be
hard, but negotiating
with criminals is taboo.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Benjamin Lessing is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago,
where he studies “criminal conflict”—organized armed violence involving non-state actors
who do not seek formal state power. His forthcoming book, Making Peace with the Drug
War (Cambridge University Press), examines cartel-state conflict in Colombia, Mexico and
Brazil. He is currently researching the spread of prison gangs in Latin America, and studying
Brazilian paramilitary groups’ use of territorial control to influence electoral outcomes. Prior
to his graduate work, Lessing conducted field research on arms trafficking in Latin America
and the Caribbean for international organizations including Amnesty International, Oxfam,
Small Arms Survey, ISER and Viva Rio. He was a Fulbright Grantee in Argentina, Brazil, and
Uruguay.

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The Brookings Institution
1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20036
brookings.edu

 

 

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