Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil

Latin America

Strategically located between Argentina and Uruguay, Rio Grande do Sul is a hub for contraband and drug smuggling.

Brazil’s southernmost state houses the country’s largest dry port, on the border with Argentina, responsible for 90 percent of national exports to the Southern Common Market (Mercado Común del Sur – MERCOSUR).

Contraband and marijuana from Paraguay also transit through Rio Grande do Sul on the way to Uruguay. Cocaine, meanwhile, is smuggled in from Argentina or enters the state from Santa Catarina. Porto Alegre, a port city in Rio Grande do Sul, provides drug cartels with a gateway to the European market.

Criminal Actors

Os Manos: Os Manos are the most important criminal organization in Rio Grande do Sul. The group is divided into different cells which operate with a degree of independence but are ultimately led by four leaders present in different parts of the state. The group has its strongest presence in Novo Hamburgo, Sapuranga, and the Sierra Gaucho region. These regions are strategic for Os Manos from a business perspective. The group could have as many as 10,000 members.

Bala na Cara: Bala na Cara (Bullet in the Face) is the second most prominent criminal group in Rio Grande do Sul. The group is known for its gratuitous violence and control of the drug trade in Porto Alegre. The gang’s cells are present in various parts of the state, albeit less so than in Porto Alegre. In addition to trafficking cocaine and marijuana, the group controls the supply of crack in prisons.

Antibala: Antibala wants to position itself as a criminal rival of the Bala na Cara. The group controls some drug retail points in Porto Alegre, but they do not have a strong foothold in the state.

First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC): In Rio Grande do Sul, the PCC is mainly a supplier of drugs and weapons for Os Manos. The two groups have allegedly established an operational alliance for the supply of drugs and weapons. The PCC has around 700 recruits in the southwest of Rio Grande do Sul, where it controls part of the cocaine-smuggling routes entering Brazil from Paraguay. State and federal authorities are concerned about the possible expansion of Os Manos and the PCC into Uruguay and the port of Montevideo. Although the presence of local criminal structures has stopped the PCC from establishing hegemonic control in the state, the group has nonetheless become one of the most relevant criminal actors in Rio Grande do Sul.

Los Abertos: Los Abertos was born as a dissident group, formed by members of Bala na Cara. The group peddles drugs in some areas of Porto Alegre and has a minor presence in the city’s central prison. Still, it is a small criminal organization, only active in some neighborhoods.

Criminal Economies

Arms Trafficking: In 2019, authorities seized a total of 4,123 firearms in Rio Grande do Sul, with an estimated value of approximately $9 million. The seizures illustrate that the market is sizeable, possibly worth tens of millions in sales per year.

Cocaine: In 2019, authorities seized 1,352 kilograms of cocaine in Rio Grande do Sul, worth an estimated $5.8 million. Though it is hard to tell what proportion of the drug was destined for local consumption, as opposed to transit, the seizures indicate a sizeable and vibrant market that could be in the tens of millions of dollars.

Cannabis: In 2019, authorities seized 9.81 tons of marijuana in Rio Grande do Sul, worth an estimated $1.9 million. The seizures indicate a large local market, which although considerably less than the cocaine market, would still reach into the millions of dollars in revenue per year for local criminal groups.

Environmental Crime: Rio Grande do Sul houses diverse flora and fauna species, many in danger of extinction. Animals are trafficked for sale on the local pet market – notably birds, reptiles and fish. Still, the eco-trafficking economy is small, probably in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Human Trafficking: Sex trafficking is the main form of human trafficking in Rio Grande do Sul, mostly affecting women and girls. Victims are recruited in the state or brought from other countries in the region, such as Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina. However, there is minimal information on how the involved criminal groups operate or the size of the criminal market.

Human Smuggling: There appears to be some degree of human smuggling in Rio Grande do Sul, but there is insufficient available information to determine how the involved groups operate, or the value of this criminal economy.

Contraband: Contraband is a major business in Rio Grande do Sul, particularly on the border with Argentina. There, Brazil’s largest dry port concentrates 90 percent of national exports to MERCOSUR countries. Contraband from Paraguay also transits through Rio Grande do Sul, mostly bound for Uruguay. Paraguayan cigarettes, destined for the Brazilian market, are among the most commonly smuggled items through the state.

Sources: This profile is based on a field investigation in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, and two trips to São Paulo where InSight Crime interviewed representatives of the Attorney General’s Office, Brazil’s Special Action Group for the Suppression of Organized Crime, a national anti-organized crime division, local authorities, federal police anti-money laundering agents, and local journalists, most of whom requested anonymity. InSight Crime also drew from information provided by Brazil’s Public Security Forum, O Globo, Correio do Povo, and local press.

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