Vicious 'Red Command' : The Gang That Taught Terror to Rio

Times Staff Writer

The apartment house holdup on Sorocaba Street was typical of the notorious Red Command, the gang that changed Rio de Janeiro.

Springing a flimsy lock on the building's heavy glass door at 5 a.m. on July 9, eight gunmen barged in and quickly took charge of the ground floor.

"They put a knife to my ear here," said Jose Anjo Teixeira, the unarmed night watchman. "They socked me in the mouth." He touched his swollen lower lip. "I tried to talk to them to see if they would go away. They got irritated and did this." And, he said, one of them warned, "Don't try anything, because we are from the Red Command."

Teixeira, 42, was tied up in a basement pump room. Then, as early rising residents began coming and going in the five-story building, the bandits seized them and forced them to open their apartments.

'I Am Still Terrified'

"It was the worst moments of my life," said Maria Soares de Oliveira, a resident whose apartment was robbed. "I am still terrified."

The invaders finally fled at about 8 a.m., using the car they came in and another one stolen from the building's basement garage--both loaded with electronic goods, silverware, jewelry, rugs and other valuables.

That kind of invasion is common in Rio de Janeiro. Bank holdups, often with gunplay, are even more common. Cocaine traffic also is widespread and gives rise to bloody outbursts of gang warfare. Over two decades, a tidal wave of crime has flooded Rio, transforming it from a relatively placid city of beachside fun into a major center for violent crime.

Gang Born in Prisons

By far the most powerful and violent practitioners of these crimes in Rio is a gang called the Red Command, also known as the Red Phalanx. It wrote the book on holdups, drugs and drug dealing. Born in the state prisons, weaned on the tactics and organizational techniques of political revolutionaries and nurtured by the poverty of Rio's favelas, its infamous hillside slums, the gang has spearheaded the dramatic expansion of organized criminal activity here, police say.

Alba Zaluar, a Brazilian anthropologist who studies crime, called the Red Command the most prominent example of a "more professional, organized crime" that, since the 1960s, has given sunny Rio a darker and more dramatic side.

The Command dominates many favelas , using drug money and guns to maintain secure fiefdoms where few question their authority. And until recently, the gang also ruled Rio's state penitentiaries, using the techniques learned from political prisoners in the 1970s.

Authorities now are pressing efforts to undermine the Red Command's power bases in favelas and state prisons. As a result, after two decades of growth, the gang appears to be weakening for the first time. But because the kinds of crime it pioneered have spread so widely, copied by uncounted other criminals, Rio may never be the same.

The Command propagated a kind of lightning holdup on small bank branches where half a dozen armed robbers readily subdue security guards and tellers. On the last day in May, five banks were hit--perhaps not all by the Red Command, but all in the Command's familiar style.

The Command also is well known for its apartment house holdups, which follow a well-rehearsed pattern. Doormen and guards are neutralized, residents are captured and forced to open their apartments, and booty is hauled off in cars, often stolen. The gang's name is so closely associated with the method, police say, that copycat crooks sometimes say they are from the Red Command to give themselves credibility on similar jobs.

In some cases, Red Command robbers have taken over the ground floors of tourist hotels, rifling security deposit boxes for jewels and money in commando-like operations apparently planned in great detail.

Usually, no one is hurt. But in a Red Command holdup last October, robbers invading the beachfront apartment of David Mordehachvili, 56, shot the wealthy industrialist to death.

They had captured the building's doorman and its janitor, then intercepted Mordehachvili and his son as the two got off the elevator on the ground floor.

"We are from the Red Command," the robbers were quoted as saying. "We came to rob, but killing is no problem."

Wife Screams for Help

Mordehachvili let them into his apartment and called to his wife, who was in the bathroom, to come out because they were being robbed. She screamed out the bathroom window for help, and as the robbers fled, one of them shot Mordehachvili in the chest.

In the late 1960s, when Brazil was governed by the armed forces, apartment house holdups were unheard of. Although police do not keep separate statistics on that category of crime, they estimate that last year armed robbers invaded an average of five apartment buildings a month.

Bank holdups averaged nearly one a day in 1988. Police estimate that as many as three-fourths of them were carried out by members of the Red Command.

Until the late 1960s, bank holdups were rare in Brazil.

"We only knew about bank holdups from American films," said Tecio Lins e Silva, the secretary of justice for Rio de Janeiro state. Then, urban guerrillas began robbing banks to finance their underground organizations.

"Common criminals, seeing that it was a good deal, that it was a profitable activity, also began holding up banks," Lins e Silva said. And because the military government classified bank robbery as a crime against national security, it held bank robbers in the same prison as guerrillas.

In Rio's Ilha Grande penitentiary, guerrillas and other political prisoners organized themselves to defend their rights as prisoners and to lend order and purpose to life in confinement. Prison authorities gave them special treatment and special privileges.

Convicted bank robbers in the same prison wing learned from the guerrillas, formed an organization they called the Red Phalanx "and demanded the same rights," Lins e Silva said.

Nelson Rodrigues Jr., who was a political prisoner in Ilha Grande in 1975, said the nonpolitical prisoners "realized that organization is fundamental for power and that for the prisoner to live with dignity, it is necessary to organize." Principles of organization can also be useful in crime, Rodrigues noted.

The Phalanx eventually thrived outside prison walls, using increasingly sophisticated methods and arms for growing numbers of bank robberies and other holdups.

Police say much of the Phalanx holdup loot was used to finance the expansion of drug trafficking. The gang recruited young residents of slums to distribute and peddle cocaine, running off rivals in explosive gun battles. Profits also went back to prisons, where convicted Phalanx leaders used the money to buy privileges and the allegiance of other inmates.

A few years ago, the Red Phalanx began calling itself the Red Command, and both names peppered newspaper crime pages, synonyms for the organized banditry and methodical lawlessness that had come to characterize this metropolis of nearly 10 million people. The gang's leaders became the folkloric objects of fascination and fear, known by colorful nicknames such as Half-Kilo, Crazy Paulo, Stepladder, Apache and Fats.

Anthropologist Zaluar said Rio's change into a crime-ridden city has accompanied Brazil's transformation into a modern industrial society that emphasizes consumption. Ironically, she said, it was increased industrial wealth rather than increased poverty that seemed to stimulate crime.

"It is as if moral values have imploded in the search for gain, for profit," she said. Most Brazilian criminals once wanted mainly to get by, she said, but now they want to get rich. For increasing numbers of them, gangs and cocaine have made that possible.

"They rob to obtain capital to buy drugs to sell to have more money," she said. "And they have a rich life. They spend a lot of money on women."

Red Command leaders have set the standards for such enrichment and conspicuous consumption by criminals. They drive luxury cars and live in nice apartments.

Young slum dwellers idolize the leaders, envy their wealth and are easily inducted into the gang to distribute and sell cocaine, Zaluar said. In some slums, drug trafficking is not yet controlled by a large gang like the Red Command. But Zaluar said the Command readily co-opts and kills members of small neighborhood gangs to bring their territory under its control.

"It is trying to take over, trying to bring those organizations into its hierarchy," she said.

Zaluar fears that the Command might become so powerful that it could corrupt and intimidate judges, police commanders and other high officials. She cited Colombia's so-called Medellin Cartel of cocaine barons as a chilling example of how a criminal organization can overwhelm a government.

When Gov. Wellington Moreira Franco took office in 1987, Rio's new state administration found that its police force was unable to safely enter numerous hillside slums where heavily armed Red Command members were in charge. The Command also reigned in the state prison system, which keeps 8,600 inmates in 24 penitentiaries.

Lins e Silva said prison hit men called "robots" intimidated and killed on orders from the Red Command. The Command's leaders, he said, took part in all kinds of administrative decisions.

"They came to run the jails," he said. "To transfer a prisoner, those groups had to be consulted. . . . They had force, they had power."

Oswaldo Deleuze Raymundo, the new director of prisons, recalled that when he went to visit the Helio Gomes prison for the first time, he was greeted in the reception area by four Red Command convicts.

"Welcome," they told him. "We will take you to see the warden."

Raymundo said some Red Command leaders had their own telephones in prison, and one group had a clandestine extension from the Helio Gomes warden's office.

Command leaders in prison used the phones to coordinate action with leaders on the street and in other prisons. They used their influence over transfers to place themselves comfortably and strategically and to reward cooperative inmates. Their control over the inmate population enhanced their power to bargain with the administration. With the help of bribes, they staged numerous breakouts and escapes.

The Moreira Franco government soon began a major crackdown on the Red Command. Police invaded its strongholds in the slums, shooting it out with gang members and often killing or arresting leaders. Raymundo curtailed Red Command privileges in prison and transferred 22 of its top leaders, many of them recently arrested, to a brand-new, high-security prison named Bangu I.

In isolation, the gang leaders soon found it difficult to control their organization. They called for a protest hunger strike by all prisoners, but prison authorities broke the strike by publicizing evidence that the leaders were eating secretly.

The leaders backed their demand for transfers by ordering the murder of 19 inmates in four prisons, officials charge. Public prosecutors now are preparing homicide charges against 22 Command leaders and more than 150 other inmates for the 19 murders committed between Oct. 31 and Nov. 16.

Giuseppi Vitagliano, the leading prosecutor on the case, said his investigation stalled at first because inmate witnesses were afraid to talk. "They knew that if they pointed out the culprits, they would be in danger."

But by offering witnesses security in prison wings where the Red Command no longer has any influence, prosecutors have built what Vitagliano said is a strong case that the state will bring to trial this month. He said the prosecutors will show that the 22 Command leaders in Bangu I issued orders to kill, "and those orders were transmitted by relatives, other visitors and even a lawyer."

An order would be received by a prison death squad called a "streetcar," Vitagliano said. "That streetcar would go out, killing as it went."

Raymundo, the director of prisons, said the Red Command's power has been drastically reduced in most prisons. Authorities are encouraging inmates to organize themselves as "neutrals," with no connections to the Command or to smaller prison gangs. Neutrals are given preference for desirable transfers, while prisoners who follow Red Command orders are punished and isolated from other inmates, Raymundo said.

Hekel Raposo, the state undersecretary of civil police, said the Red Command also has lost much of its drug-trafficking power base in Rio slums. Police action over the past year has broken up many trafficking networks, put numerous traffickers behind bars and reinstituted patrolling by uniformed officers in many slums.

Raposo estimated that the Red Command once controlled 90% of Rio's booming retail cocaine trade, but now controls only 25% or 30%.

"Before, there really was an organization," he said. "Now, it is weakened."

According to Raposo, the Command's two top leaders are bank robbers known by the nicknames Junk and Japonese. Both are locked away in Bangu I, but Raposo acknowledged that the Command is still a threat.

"We don't have the illusion that we have eliminated it," he said. "That is a war that is renewed every day."

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