The expansion of São Paulo’s gang Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) and Rio de Janeiro’s Comando Vermelho (CV) into all regions and most states in Brazil signifies a major security concern for the country. A third player, Família do Norte (FDN), poses a challenge to the other organized criminal groups (OCGs), especially in the North region, where the FDN fights to retain control of the lucrative drug trading route through the Amazon. Although it is widely believed that the presence of OCGs impacts homicide rates, organized crime is notoriously difficult to measure.
This study develops a novel methodology for detecting the presence and activity level of OCGs in Brazilian states using the number of Google searches for the years between 2004 and 2019. I estimate the level of competition between the different OCGs, and use this information to help explain the variation in homicide rates across time and space. I argue that OCG presence and activity levels by themselves do not explain homicide rates well; in fact, some states with high levels of OCG activity have relatively low homicide rates. However, in combination with a highly competitive scenario, the strong presence of these groups can translate into high levels of violence. Expert interviews help elucidate what the expansion of these powerful groups mean for society and state institutions.