A point I have made repeatedly in these columns is that Fourth Generation war includes far more than America’s current battle with Islamic "terrorists." Last week, events in Brazil offered us a timely reminder of that fact. There, a gang, the PCC or First Command of the Capital, launched a full-scale military attack on the Brazilian state.
The PCC’s actions illustrated a number of ways in which non-state forces deal with opposing states. The first is penetration. When a top-level meeting of Brazilian officials decided to act against the gang by transferring some of its leaders to a high-security prison, the gang immediately knew of the decision. How? It had a mole in the meeting, a contractor employed as a court reporter.
Then, the gang showed that flat, networked organizations can move far faster than a state, with its bureaucratic hierarchy. As a story in the May 21 Washington Post reported, "Within hours of that meeting, news of the transfer plan had spread through the gang’s prison-based network…" How? The Post story says, "After word of the planned transfer was passed to the gang’s leaders, coordinating the uprisings was easy. They simply called each other on their cellphones." Their cellphone security is simple but effective: "According to police, the gang often clones legitimate cellphone numbers for illegal use."
While prison riots are common in Brazil, the PCC demonstrated an ability to reach far beyond the prisons. In the city of Sao Paulo, they launched military-style attacks on police and civilian infrastructure targets. The Post reports that
Riots broke out in more than 70 state penitentiaries. Gang members outside prisons attacked police stations, burned more than 60 public buses and whipped up a general state of terror that paralyzed Brazil’s Sao Paulo…
As of Saturday (May 20), the death count totaled 41 police officers, 18 inmates, 107 suspected PCC members outside prisons and four civilians.
Demonstrating the often-excellent intelligence capabilities of non-state organizations, "The gang members also know where the police live…Some of the officers who died during the outbreaks were killed near their homes while off duty."
The PCC does what gangs do, namely use violence and make money off crime, especially the drug trade. But its origins illustrate the role non-state entities have in providing services states fail to offer. The Washington Post story notes that
(The PCC’s) strength had been feeding on the weakness of government for years. The PCC was founded in 1993 as a response to the abysmal conditions in Sao Paulo’s prisons, where inmates lived in fear of each other, sleeping in overcrowded cells with no beds, no blankets, no soap, no toothbrushes.
By offering protection and basic necessities to new inmates, the gang won the loyalty of most prisoners in a population that now numbers 124,400…the PCC has repeatedly won minor improvements in conditions in some facilities. That has earned them favor not only with the inmates, but with the family members who provide the basic goods that PCC members distribute inside the prison blocs.
Nor does the PCC work only in ways that are illegal. The Post writes that "the gang also employs a network of attorneys…"
The PCC emerges from the Post account and from its uprising in Sao Paulo as almost a model Fourth Generation organization, operating a network of structures parallel to those of the state that work more effectively than the state’s institutions. As the state retreats into ever-greater corruption and incapacity, the PCC has advanced by filling in the widening gaps. It has now reached the point where it can confront the state directly, while I think it is safe to say that the state cannot defeat much less destroy the PCC.
Not only does this offer us a Fourth Generation model very different from what we confront in al Qaeda (it is more like Hamas and Hezbollah), it may also present a picture of what America will face coming out of its own prisons. Most American prisons are run not by the state but by racially-defined gangs. A prisoner’s well-being, even his survival, depends on his gang, not on the prison authorities. How long will it be before those gangs, like the PCC, will be able to reach outside the prisons and confront the American state? Police in cities such as Los Angeles might say that is happening now.
William Lind [send him mail] is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Lind, writing in his personal capacity.