The gang was founded in 1993 by hardened criminals inside Sao Paulo's Taubate Penitentiary, but remained a relatively obscure group until early 2001, when uprisings in 29 prisons across the state killed 19 inmates. It was the biggest prison rebellion in Brazil's recent history and took police 27 hours to crush.
The PCC was formed to pressure for improved prison conditions. Brazilian Justice Minister Jose Cardozo, speaking at a security conference this week, said he would "prefer to die" than serve time in his nation's prisons. He added: "We have a medieval penal system."
While the gang's start may have been rooted in fighting for basic human rights of the imprisoned, its members quickly began using their power inside prisons to direct drug-dealing and extortion operations on the outside.
There are no official numbers on the gang's size, but the inner core considered as members is thought to include no more than a few thousand people, Cano said.
Last month, police documents obtained by the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo indicated the gang's members numbered just over 1,300, and showed they are required to pay $300 in monthly fees in exchange for legal aid if they're arrested and support for their families if they go to jail.
What makes the PCC so powerful is that corporate approach to how it manages gang enterprises as well as its reach beyond its core membership.
"They outsource. They contract people and allow them to carry out certain activities as long as they're paying them (the PCC) something in return," Cano said. "For example, in 2006 many people say the killings of policemen were outsourced."
Estimates of the number of people connected in some way to the gang go as high as 100,000.
The security experts, Cano and Maierovitch, both agree that violence will escalate if police continue a hardline approach against the PCC, and if there is a perception that political leaders are closing their eyes to excessive force or killings carried out by officers against suspected gang members.
An amateur video aired by the Globo TV network this week is likely to increase the backlash.
It shows police escorting a suspect out of his home in a poor Sao Paulo neighborhood. With the man in the street and surrounded by five officers, one policeman points his gun at the suspect. In that instant, two shots are fired, but the person taking the video is blocked, obscuring the scene.
The man was later reported by police as being killed during a gunbattle. But investigators on Wednesday requested that the officers involved be taken into custody while an investigation continues, a request a judge had not yet ruled on.
A police spokeswoman said the department had no comment on the case.
Back in the Vila Brasilandia slum, shopkeeper Silva said that while police and the gang battle, those caught in the crossfire are feeling the pain.
"The average person ends up being the real target — and we don't know who is the criminal and who is the police," she said.
Associated Press writer Stan Lehman contributed to this report.