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

August 05, 1989|WILLIAM R. LONG | Times Staff Writer

RIO DE JANEIRO — 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.

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