SÃO PAULO, Brazil—This country’s largest criminal organization is recruiting members of Colombia’s once-powerful rebel group as it seeks heavy-weapons and other expertise to help expand its hold over Latin America’s drug trade, investigators and officials in both countries say.
First Capital Command aims to broaden its criminal footprint with Colombian rebels’ heavy-weapons skills.
Defense and foreign ministry officials from both nations are scheduled to meet Tuesday in the city of Manaus in the Amazon region to share information on how the Brazilian criminal organization, the First Capital Command or PCC, is working to hire guerrillas in Colombia, some of whom opted not to participate in peace talks in that country. Colombia’s government last year signed a peace pact with the Marxist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and most of its 6,000 fighters are now preparing to disarm.
“The PCC has been offering jobs to the FARC,” Colombia Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said, adding an investigation is under way. Between 5% and 10% of FARC members are expected not to accept the peace accord, Colombian officials have said.
The PCC’s attempts to court rebels underscore the Colombian government’s challenge in demobilizing combatants steeped in drug trafficking. The Brazilian gang’s efforts to expand its influence into Colombia come among a surge in Colombia’s production of coca, the plant used in cocaine. The estimated potential production of cocaine rose 46% from 2014 to 2015, the last year for which relevant United Nations data on Colombia is available.
The PCC is trying to wrest control of smuggling routes in Brazil from other criminal groups, cut out intermediaries and work directly with Colombian suppliers to deliver cocaine to Brazil, said Lincoln Gakiya, a São Paulo-based prosecutor who has been investigating PCC activities for 10 years. American antinarcotics officials say Brazil is the world’s second-biggest market for the drug after the U.S.
Created in a São Paulo prison in 1993, the PCC has grown into a highly organized, disciplined group with 21,000 members across Brazil, along with a presence in Paraguay, Brazilian prosecutors say. The group’s kingpins are in prison but they control underlings in urban slums running what has become the most powerful organization in Brazil’s underworld.
The PCC’s main adversary, aside from rival gangs, is Brazil’s military and federal police apparatus outfitted with helicopters, armed vehicles and modern weaponry.
“The PCC is obsessed with getting military training,” Mr. Gakiya said. The gang is seeking .50-caliber machine guns, which are capable of taking down helicopters and perforating bulletproof cars, as well as to enlist parts of the FARC’s network of seasoned fighters and expert bomb makers, the prosecutor added. Email correspondence between members of the PCC in 2015 also showed the Brazilian gang made efforts to buy drugs from FARC members, he said.
The FARC denies ties to Brazilian criminal gangs and says it is now dedicated to peace.
In recent months, as the PCC has set its sights on Colombia, the gang has battled in Brazil’s overcrowded northern prisons with rivals such as the Red Command gang for control over trafficking routes. The bitter conflict led to the deaths of about 120 inmates in early January in a series of gruesome jail uprisings in which many prisoners were dismembered and decapitated.
Jorge Restrepo, director of Colombia’s Resource Center for Conflict Analysis in Bogotá, said any proven links between the PCC and FARC should be cause for concern in Colombia, where the government is scrambling to disarm rebels. “It would be the first time in many years that outside criminal groups are working to recruit the FARC,” Mr. Restrepo said.
The FARC is now convening its forces in two dozen hamlets, with the U.N. overseeing a disarmament process set to be completed by midyear. Former fighters are supposed to reintegrate into society while the group’s leadership organizes a leftist political party.
“The peace deal between Colombia’s government and the FARC is fantastic,” said Vladimir Aras, a prosecutor who heads the international cooperation unit of the Brazilian Prosecutor General’s Office. “But it generates a side effect, which will be the idling of many FARC members.”
Some fighters have opted out of the process altogether. Guerrilla units in the lawless jungles of southeast Colombia, near the Brazilian border, have broken ranks with the FARC over the peace pact. The FARC leadership recently expelled five dissident commanders, all from that region.
Mr. Villegas, Colombia’s defense minister, says he expects a dissidence rate of about 5%, but the crime-tracking organization InSight Crime estimates it could be far higher if it includes the FARC’s urban supporters, who were active in intelligence-gathering operations and securing provisions for the rebels.
The FARC’s connections with Brazil first came to light in 2001, when Colombia’s military arrested Luiz Fernando da Costa, the leader of the Red Command gang, in southeast Colombia. He later admitted to buying cocaine from the FARC and helping the group procure weapons. Convicted of murder and drug trafficking, Mr. da Costa is serving time in a Brazilian prison.
“There is a proven history there between both sides,” said Jeremy McDermott, who tracks Colombia’s drug trade for InSight Crime.