All photos by Morten Andersen

Cell to Cell: How Smuggled Mobile Phones Are Rewiring Brazil's Prisons

What happens when imprisoned criminals have widespread access to communications technology?

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Apr 14 2014, 2:10pm

All photos by Morten Andersen

On January 18, 2013, prison guards in the Brazilian city of Joinville rounded up a group of inmates and began torturing them. Over the course of four hours, the naked men were shot with rubber bullets and doused with pepper spray. In a video clip, the men are seen in the fetal position, waiting for the attack to end.

The prisoners' counterattack was swift and deadly. Days after the video surfaced, prisoners organized attacks across the six-million-person state of Santa Catarina. The homes of prison officials, police stations, and public busses were all attacked. "Prisoners decided to orchestrate the attacks to call the attention of the population and authorities to issues of management in the prison system," said Col. Nazareno Marcineiro, the commander of Santa Catarina's military police.

The Santa Catarina uprising was yet another chapter in an eight-year reign of terror organized and carried out by Brazilian prisoners. In Santa Catarina the attacks were organized by Primeiro Comando Catarinense, a copycat offshoot of Brazil's most powerful prison gang, the Primeiro Comando do Capital, which is widely known as "The PCC."

The attacks have left hundreds dead and provide a jarring example of what can happen when imprisoned criminals have widespread access to communications technology. Whether its members are looking up the home address of their least favorite guard, organizing a riot, or even buying gold bullion with stolen credit card numbers, the PCC has shown that prisoners with bandwidth pose a host of challenges.

Confiscated burners. Image: Morten Andersen

The PCC is hardly alone in its exploitation of in-prison cell phone usage to organize crimes, but few prison gangs in the world can match its combination of access to phones, brute violence, and organizational discipline. And as the PCC has shown repeatedly, wired prisoners change the entire concept of incarceration. Instead of being isolated and punished, the inmate with access to a cell can organize murders, threaten witnesses, plan crimes, and browse online porn to figure out which escort to order up for the next intimate visit.

Last year, Brazilian authorities confiscated an estimated 35,000 phones from prisoners, yet Brazilian organized crime leaders continued to have widespread ability to make calls, receive calls, organize conference calls, and even hold virtual trials where gang leaders from different prisons are patched in to a central line to debate the fate of gang members accused of betraying the group's ironclad rules.

"They [prisoners] organize executions over the phone. You never forget it when you hear the crime bosses voting one after another – 'kill', 'kill', 'kill'...I have heard this type of conversation many times," said Marcelo Cristino, a federal prosecutor in São Paulo, as he described a conference call among an estimated seven PCC leaders.

Cristino has spent over a decade fighting the PCC, and has listened to hundreds of hours of conversations as the prisoners run their criminal enterprise from behind the walls. "It is all very disciplined, they don't shout. They take turns."

They [prisoners] organize executions over the phone. You never forget it when you hear the crime bosses voting one after another – 'kill', 'kill', 'kill'.

The PCC was born out of organized crime—by Brazilian prison guards. The initial organization by the group was in response to the massacre of 111 prisoners at Carandiru prison in 1992. That event instigated the prisoners to organize and fight for basic human rights by presenting a unified front to prison authorities.

Thanks to the phone and their union-style rules and regulations, criminals in São Paulo who are sent to prison and removed from society are transported into a regimented, disciplined world organized not by the state—but by the PCC.

Led by Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, aka "Marcola," the PCC is based in Brazil's sprawling economic capital, São Paulo, a city of 20 million. With operations in Bolivia and Paraguay, the PCC control wide swaths of the cocaine and marijuana trade as well as kidnapping, prostitution, and extortion schemes. Though "Marcola" has been in prison since 1999, his access to cell phones has allowed him to not only control but to expand his empire to an estimated 22 states across Brazil.

Using clandestine cell phones and capitalizing on the appalling conditions of Brazilian prisons, the PCC now controls dozens of prisons in the state of São Paulo and has expanded to other prisons throughout much of Brazil. The PCC also control lucrative in-prison drug sales, trafficking of other contraband, control of prison commissary services, and numerous extortion scams that begin with an inmate on a cell phone threatening a civilian on the other side of the wall.

Each member of the PCC must pledge allegiance to a 16-point oath. It bars rape, but leaves the door wide open for lucrative endeavors, including bank robberies and kidnapping. Once sworn in, the members must pay around $25 a month if they are inside prison, and $250 if they are on the other side of the razor wire. Benefits include an armory where criminal can borrow weapons, returning them after the crime. Powering .

Asked by a newspaper reporter if he feared dying, Marcola outlined a new balance of power. "It is you who are afraid of dying, not me. As a matter of fact, here in jail you cannot come in and kill me…but I can order to kill you out there," he said. Referring to his loyalists, Marcola described inmates who "graduate in the jails like monsters" and form "a new culture of killing aided by modern technology, satellites, cellular phones, internet. It is 'the shit' [inmates] with chips, with megabytes."

Prison armory. Image: Morten Andersen

Smuggling phones into Brazilian prisons had become a niche industry. Lawyers and visitors are regularly caught smuggling in the phones, using ruses ranging from phones stuffed in a hollow fake leg to a man who glued the phone to his head then covered it with a hollowed out Afro.

In May 2009, police on the perimeter of Venceslau, a maximum security prison in São Paulo, made another unusual discovery. At a routine police stop, a group of three adults and a teenager were found traveling with a remote control helicopter, 14 cell phones, and 1,000 reais (US$450). 

Under interrogation, the teenager confessed that he had been paid 10,000 reais (US$4,500) by prisoners to buy the toy copter, the 14 cell phones, and rent the car. He was promised another 10,000 reais if he could pack the helicopter with the phones and land it inside the prison courtyard. While police declined to identify the intended recipients, the maximum security Venceslau prison is home to many of the PCC leaders.

Corrupt Brazilian prison guards are known to charge between 800-2000 reais to smuggle in cell phones. During raids, guards often confiscate the very same phones, which are then resold back to the prisoners. Brazilian prison guards are also paid to smuggle in phone cards to recharge the illegal handsets already inside the prison.

In the most creative case, in 2009, a guard at Tower II of the Danilo Pinheiro prison noticed a pigeon balanced on a power line just outside the prison courtyard. The pigeon wobbled like it was drunk and had a bag tied to its body. When the pigeon fell to the ground and landed in a neighboring lot, the guards tracked down the errant pigeon and opened the bag. It contained pieces of a phone.

The following day a second pigeon was trapped, this time by prison guards who used bread crumbs to lure the bird close enough to snare it with a fish net. Inside the bag? A cell phone charger.

Six days later a third pigeon was trapped, this one with two phones, a battery charger, and a slip of paper with the name of the inmate who was to receive the phone. "The use of carrier pigeon to smuggle cell phones into prisons is becoming almost commonplace," a prison guard told the Associated Press. "Guards now keep a sharp eye on pigeon as well as on inmates."

It is you who are afraid of dying, not me. As a matter of fact, here in jail you cannot come in and kill me…but I can order to kill you out there.

Phone cards are now considered currency inside São Paulo prisons. With a cell phone, a prisoner can traffic drugs inside and outside the walls. For hundreds of Brazilian inmates, the phone helps them run a direct marketing appeal that is both simple and brutal. Going through the phone book, the inmates ring São Paulo residents and say, "I am from the PCC. I know where your children go to school. If you do not pay, I will grab them."

The threat ends with a solution: place $100 on a specific cell phone account now and the child is saved. With an estimated positive response rate of five percent, these direct fear marketers "earn" thousands of minutes on their phones by terrifying city residents into subsidizing their cell phone accounts.

Though prisoners know that much of their phone talk is monitored, they have devised countermeasures. "We had one group of prisoners who took French lessons and then they would speak in French just a few words, very quick and all in code," said a São Paulo police investigator who asked not to be named. "You see the same thing in the text messages. It is all in code and even if we do break it, by that time the [drug] delivery already happened like three days before."

Using guerilla strategy and cell phones, the PCC has evolved from a classic pyramid structure to the more difficult to penetrate structure of independent cells, much like a classic terrorist group. Thus a single member can't compromise more than a fraction of the organization.

Ironically, as they spread mayhem on the streets, the PCC is recognized even by its critics for bringing order and lowered levels of violence inside the prisons that it essentially controls.

"There is a kind of deal between the prison directors and the PCC," Julio Ferreira, a São Paulo based photojournalist, told me. "The deal is the PCC won't make a mess in the jail. Don't give me problems and I will close my eyes and let you have everything you want in prison—cell phones, girls, drugs, marijuana, cocaine, drinks and everything. Everyone is happy with that. The prison director is happy, there are no riots. The guards are happy they have their money—everything comes in by bribes. The PCC is happy because they have their drugs, their phones."

But ubiquitous access to cell phones has long stymied efforts by government officials to dismantle the PCC. In October 2013, the São Paulo government announced that it was installing cell phone jammers in dozens of prisons throughout the state. The idea was to isolate the PCC leaders and prevent them from maintaining fluid communications with their lieutenants down the hierarchy.

The focus of the jamming was on Mauricio Henrique Guimaraes Pereira Penitentiary, a maximum-security facility in the west of the state that houses Marcola, the PCC's supreme leader. But prisoners instantly found holes in the coverage; areas of the prison known as "shadows" were found to still have cell phone signals. And it was a cell phone call by a PCC prisoner that alerted prison authorities to an escape plot that involved renting two helicopters, shielding them with bulletproof armor and then hovering over the prison yard to whisk away the PCC leaders.

Don't give me problems and I will close my eyes and let you have everything you want in prison.

While authorities touted their ability to upend the Hollywood style helicopter rescue, more somber analysts wondered what it said about the ability to effectively cut off communications to PCC leaders. Even if the cell phone jamming works, the prisoners are likely to remain one step ahead. PCC members have now been monitored as they attempted to buy satellite phones for use in prison. These phones would bypass the normal cell phone circuits and could likely include encryption.

The PCC's interest in telecommunications goes well beyond placing and receiving phone calls. They have also invested in attempts to record cell conversations. In a series of PCC conversations intercepted in January 2008, Brazilian police listened as top PCC leaders negotiated with their lawyers to buy a surveillance system known as "Guardian," which is allegedly capable of simultaneously monitoring more than a thousand cell phones conversations. The PCC discovered that the Brazilian Federal Police used "Guardian" to coordinate investigations that required massive phone surveillance. The machines are sold in Miami, and after setting up a front company, the PCC prepared to send a corrupt lawyer to Miami to purchase the machine for a cool $320,000.

Brazilian police foiled the plot by arresting the lawyer before the Miami trip, but the PCC's goal remains clear—to establish what the Brazil press dubbed "a parallel intelligence agency" in which they would record the conversations of top police commanders and politicians. With a network powered by a glut of cheap, easily-smuggled phones, the PCC seeks to create a wholesale reversal of justice in which prisoners investigate politicians, find their crimes, and punish them.

Jonathan Franklin is the author of 33 Men, the bestselling saga of the trapped Chilean miners. He lives and works in South America where he is a frequent contributor to the Guardian and the Washington Post. Follow him @FranklinBlog.