The (dare I say, even sarcastically) classic 1997 movie Con Air is based on the premise of a prison transfer gone awry. In the movie, a group of criminals hijack the airplane on which they are being transported from one prison to another. The movie highlights the dangerous nature of violent criminals and their ability to cause mayhem and destruction..


The week of 7 September saw two incidences of what else can go wrong when transferring high-profile prisoners. The transfer of a total of four prisoners, three in Guatemala and one in Brazil, proves that even when a high-level criminal is transferred from one prison to another without a hitch, he still has the power to make a violent impact outside of prison walls. 


In the Brazilian state of Bahia, Claudio Campanha, one of the leaders of a Bahia-based gang, was transported from a local prison to a federal penitentiary in Mato Grosso do Sul during the weekend of 5 September 2009. The following Monday, bandits started burning buses and attacking police stations in protest in various locations throughout the state. As of 9 September 2009, bandits had burned six buses, attacked four police stations, and injured two police officers. Other reports show that as of 12 September, the total number of buses burned was 16, and could increase.


In Guatemala, the transfer of three high-ranking gang members resulted in attacks leading to the deaths for four workers for the state’s federal penitentiary system. According to a recently published article on CNN, the killings were tied to the international drug trade that has wrought significant damage to Guatemalan society in spite of being controlled mainly by Mexican cartels.


As has been widely reported, high-ranking gang members conduct operations from their prison cells throughout the Americas, abetted by the free use of cell phones and arrangements with guards and other members. When their ability to operate is questioned, they’ve been known to retaliate. The most salient example of this is the May 2006 attacks by the PCC in Sao Paulo, Brazil which killed more than 200 people and caused days of panic throughout the city. Major Brazilian media outlets have compared the situation in Bahia to that which took place in Sao Paulo during the transfer of high ranking members of the PCC. 


Unlike the Hollywood conclusion to Con Air, these developments are less likely to have a happy ending. Events like those that took place this past week in Brazil and Guatemala highlight gangs’ increasing power to wage war against the state if they don’t get their way. As long as gangs can maintain their networks within prison walls and beyond, they will have the ability to protest violently, even if their leaders are in chains.