Authorities are claiming a decrease in homicides in the north of Brazil is the result of government policy, but there is evidence that the drop may be due to internal politics between drug factions.
Brazil's two largest narcotics organizations, Comando Vermelho (CV) and Primeiro Comando do Capital (PCC), maintained a peace that lasted nearly two decades. That pact was shattered in 2016 when the factions went to war. In prisons across the country, the soldiers of the two organizations brutalized each other; mutilating the corpses of their enemies and lifting the decapitated heads above the ramparts of the prison walls for the world to see.
The war spread to the streets as the two factions and their allies fought for territory. The northern state of Ceará became a focal point for the war and registering an increase in homicides of 50.7% in one year.
The Guardiões do Estado (GDE), started in 2016 as a regional gang intended to prevent locals from being taken advantage of by the larger drug factions - hence their name which translates to "Guardians of the State." They allied themselves with PCC and brutally targeted members of CV across Brazil's northern states. The organization would become one of the most violent factions in the country. In one violent outburst GDE stormed a nightclub dominated by CV and opened fire on the crowd inside killing 14.
However, following nearly three years of constant violence, in 2019 Ceará registered its safest February in 10 years. Data from 2019 points to a 54% decrease in homicides, surpassing the increase following the start of the drug war.
Authorities point to the numbers as evidence that deploying federal troops to Ceará worked.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsoaro said during a live internet broadcast last week that the decrease in murders nationally was proof that his administration was successfully tackling violence and promised a further reduction over the coming months.
However, testimony given by a leader of the GDE points toward another possibility. Brazilian paper O Povo reported this week that following his December arrest, Yago Steferson Alves dos Santos told Civil Police that in September it was decided by the leaders of the gang that they would only act defensively and stop attacking their opponents throughout the north. Dos Santos went as far as telling police "You guys must have noticed that the murders stopped."
The gang's decision was mainly for survival Dos Santos said. With Ceará becoming the flashpoint in the war between PCC and CV the state had received much attention. Not just from authorities but also the GDE's enemies.
To avoid attracting attention, GDE told their members to play defensively. If any murder was to take place, it needed to get the OK with the leadership of the gang. "I want to make it clear that no such ruling was ever given. If any deaths happened it was from something personal," Dos Santos told the police.
In the months following the decree, the number of murders dropped dramatically in Ceará.
Dos Santos did not comment on if there were similar agreements taking place throughout the country between other criminal factions. He did, however, say it was unlikely the war would ever end, "there has been too much blood."