Brazil police arrest more than 400 people in drug gang crackdown

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazilian police said on Monday they arrested more than 400 people in a major nationwide operation that highlights the complex structure and vast reach of the nation’s largest drug gang, the PCC.

According to the police, 422 arrest warrants and 201 search and seizure warrants were fulfilled across 19 states and the Federal District, and up to 252 million reais ($46 million) of assets held by those targeted were frozen.

Those arrested will be charged with money laundering, drug trafficking and directing criminal organizations from within prisons, the federal police said, charges that can carry a combined sentence of up to 28 years in prison.

The PCC, or First Capital Command, is one of the most powerful organized crime groups in South America. It emerged as a prison gang, with tens of thousands of members, and has a stranglehold over various aspects of the region’s drug trade.

Brazil, long-regarded as a cocaine-consuming nation, has become one of the top suppliers to Europe in recent years, transforming the country’s role, and that of its major gangs, in the trans-Atlantic drug trade.

At a Monday press conference, federal police detective Alexsander Castro said some of the allegedly illicit proceeds were channeled into a fund that was used to pay salaries to PCC members.

Robert Muggah, co-founder of Brazil-based security and development think tank Igarape Institute, said that while Monday’s operation will “sting,” it is “unlikely to make a major dent on the PCC” given the organization’s vast size, hierarchy and deep roots in the country’s prison system.

“The PCC have increased their overall capability and reach in recent years. Their control over the rank and file is legendary,” Muggah wrote in an e-mail.

“Brazil will never eradicate the PCC until it deals with its over-crowded prisons,” he added.

Reporting by Rodrigo Viga Gaier and Gram Slattery; Additional reporting by Ricardo Brito in Brasilia; Writing by Jamie McGeever; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Cynthia Osterman