One of the ways in which trust is signalled in criminal groups is the fact of having been in prison. It is a signal that is costly and hard to fake. The better the system is at punishing the guilty the cleaner the signal. Therefore in order to disrupt the signal, imprisoning innocent people would make criminals unsure of who they could trust. It might occur to you that the criminal justice system does a good job of this already. In Brazil as in other states, the more punitive the state, the more efficientily it centralises criminal governance in the prison system itself, bringing criminals into the prisons where wayward individuals can be controlled by the very gangs building their power in there.

The nature of the prison trust signal came up in Lessing and Willis (2019)  fascinating analysis of the criminal governance produced by the Brazilian prison based drug trafficking organisation, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC). Drug traffickers, once the footloose entrepreneurs of the crime trade, are becoming central to criminal governance. In much the way that mafias used to extend their influence beyond their members to the communities and polities they infest, drug trafficking organisations are now becoming originators and practitioners of governance forms and challenges to state authority. That represents a change in the way the drug trade is run, and a source of innovation in criminal forms. One of the developments that interest us is the growing role of the prison gang.

The PCC’s power is remarkable in terms of its reach. Originating in São Paulo in 1993 in response to a prison massacre the previous year it now commands 29,000 members. It does this without using the typical cartel model which tightly intergrates organisation and turf. Criminal organisations prefer themselves to be the ones wielding violence and the PCC is apparently responsible for a notable decline in homicides in territory it controls. Lessing and Willis draw attention to how successfully the PCC has managed this process. It ensures payments are received, consignments are delivered, competition encouraged and managed, using relatively limited punishment and retaliation. It achieves legitimacy in its sphere of operation. Competition is a core tool to maintain this.

The PCC operates using credit based drug consignments, payment to come after delivery. Profits go into communal benefits for members. Punishments are clearly defined and limiting. Well maintained records and an emphasis on proceder (right conduct) support this rationalist paradigm. While some individual criminal operators and groups rely on a reputation for unpredictability and extremism of their response to generate an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty they exploit, the PCC relits on predictable, recoverable internal ‘justice’ to govern its associates. One of the collective benefits it provides for members is security, within prisons and without. Punishments are in the main stigmatising suspensions from the trade.

Lessing B and Willis GD (2019) Legitimacy in Criminal Governance: Managing a Drug Empire from Behind Bars. The American Political Science Review 113(2). Washington, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press: 584–606. DOI: 10.1017/S0003055418000928.