Weeks-long manhunt in Brazil shows dramatic expansion of two main gangs into Amazon

Last Updated: June 21, 2024By

The Amazon Escape: Hammerhead and Armadillo’s Wild Run


For nearly two months, the Amazon’s own rebels, Hammerhead and Armadillo, felt like they were on the final stretch of a marathon, a muddy one at that.

Over the Tocantins River loomed the Trans-Amazonian highway, a beaten-down jungle road stretching over 1,200 miles across the colossal rainforest. Their aim? To sneak into Bolivia, far from the reach of Brazilian law.

But last Thursday, around 1:30 pm, the federal police crashed their party near the bridge into Marabá. “He went nuts, swerving like crazy,” one officer described the scene, talking about Hammerhead, whose real name is Rogério Mendonça, a convicted killer.


Gunshots echoed. The duo was caught. And just like that, one of Brazil’s most thrilling manhunts ended 51 days after the daring jailbreak from a high-security prison in Mossoró.

“They’re heading back where they belong,” cheered Justice Minister Ricardo Lewandowski, calling it “a win for Brazil.”

The capture of Mendonça and his partner, Deibson Nascimento, brought relief to the Brazilian government, facing criticism over how such dangerous felons could break out.


But their escape also shed light on how Rio’s Red Command (CV) and São Paulo’s First Capital Command (PCC) have stretched their grip into the Amazon, tapping into drug routes, gold mining, and land seizures.

Mendonça and Nascimento, CV members, hail from Acre and were moved to Mossoró after a 2023 rebellion where they killed five rivals, beheading three.

Nascimento, 33, a CV member since 2015, racked up over 80 years for crimes including trafficking and kidnapping. Mendonça, 35, aka Cherub, had a 74-year sentence for robbery and murder.


When arrested, they were driving through Pará, having traveled from Belém, a CV stronghold, in a fishing boat.

Aiala Couto, a security expert, sees the Amazon’s strategic importance for such factions. “They came to Pará because of its ties to these groups,” she said.

CV and PCC started infiltrating the Amazon about a decade ago, especially after a 2016 hit on a drug lord shifted the smuggling focus north.

Brazil’s prison system inadvertently helped southern gangs expand north, mixing criminal minds from different regions.

It’s unclear how long Hammerhead and Armadillo planned their escape. Their lawyer cited mistreatment as the trigger.

They broke out on Carnival’s last day, cutting through a window and fleeing atop the prison roof.

The hunt was massive. “It was like a movie. Helicopters everywhere. Drones,” Mendonça told his girlfriend.

After a month near the prison, they sailed north to Belém, a hub for smuggling cocaine to Europe. From there, CV allies drove them to Marabá, where their adventure crashed.

Back in Mossoró, Hammerhead’s mother predicted their fate: “They’ll rot in jail.”

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