Dozens of Inmates Killed as Prison Violence Escalates in Brazil

By "The New York Times"


RIO DE JANEIRO — Some of the inmates were beheaded. Others had their hearts torn from their bodies. Gang leaders used the blood of their victims to write a nightmarish message of retribution: “Blood is paid for with blood.”

The harrowing scenes on Friday from the latest prison riot in Brazil, in which 31 inmates were killed in the northern state of Roraima in the Amazon River Basin, pushed the death toll to 93 in six days of mayhem in penitentiaries around the country.

The bloodshed has shocked the country and is emerging as the most pressing crisis facing President Michel Temer, whose beleaguered government was already grappling with graft scandals, a weak economy and simmering anger over austerity measures.

"The bloodshed is revealing a war between drug gangs, a failed prison system and a weak government," said Rafael Alcadipani, a scholar who specializes in public security policies at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, a leading Brazilian university. "And now the horror is spreading."

Prison violence that has spilled out into neighboring communities has been a perennial problem in Brazil. In 2006, street fighting between the police and First Capital Command, a prison-based gang, left almost 200 people dead in São Paulo, causing chaos in the city of 20 million people.

The killings in Roraima came just days after 56 men were killed in a massacre at a prison in the city of Manaus. In two different riots at prisons this week in the states of Amazonas and Paraíba, six men were also killed.

The violence at the Monte Cristo Agricultural Penitentiary in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima, adds to fears about an intensifying war between drug gangs for control of the cocaine trade in the Amazon region in Brazil.

The latest episode is thought to involve fighting between First Capital Command, commonly known by its Portuguese initials, P.C.C., which has roots in the prisons of São Paulo in southeastern Brazil, and supporters of Red Command, a drug trafficking organization that has long held sway in Rio de Janeiro. The authorities, however, tried to play down the possibility that warring gangs were to blame.

The gangs, which operate inside prisons as well as on the streets of many Brazilian cities, are battling for supremacy over the trade in cocaine smuggled into Brazil across the porous Amazonian frontier from countries like Bolivia, Colombia and Peru.

Family of the North, an increasingly influential gang in the Amazon that has allied itself with Red Command, was responsible for the attack at the prison in Manaus, massacring dozens of rivals from the P.C.C. gang. The attack had been planned for months, according to text messages intercepted by intelligence agents.

Mr. Temer, the president, has been chided for what some have called a tone-deaf response to the crisis. He said nothing for two days about the killings in Manaus, before calling them a "dreadful accident" and seeking to deflect blame from public agencies because a private contractor runs the prison there.

Just months after emerging victorious in the battle to impeach his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, Mr. Temer is grappling with calls from some of his own allies to resign. In an effort to defend himself, he sent a message Thursday on Twitter listing synonyms for the word "accident" - tragedy, loss, disaster, disgrace and misfortune.

Although the Manaus riot has fueled a debate over whether management of some prisons should be handed to private companies, the violence in Roraima casts scrutiny directly on state officials. The Boa Vista prison, which is run by the state, has a long history of deadly riots and inmate escapes.

The prison was built for 700 inmates but currently holds about 1,400. Carlos Paixão de Oliveira, a prosecutor in Roraima, publicly criticized the management of the facility in October, when inmates from the P.C.C. gang killed at least 10 rivals from Red Command.

Mr. Oliveira suggested at the time that the prison should be demolished and replaced.

"If they want, the inmates will carry out a new slaughter in there, because no one has control of that prison," he said.

Despite the writing in blood on Friday proclaiming the supremacy of the P.C.C., the authorities contended that the latest killings did not involve score-settling between gangs but a power struggle within the P.C.C. itself, or an effort to project power by the gang.

"We've been on guard about something like this for some time, transferring prisoners from Red Command to other units," said Uziel Castro, the top security official in Roraima. "We think this had to do with an internal battle."

Either way, the scenes from the Roraima penitentiary offered an unsettling reminder of how the bloodshed in the country's prisons is a problem that has been building for decades, revealing a system hobbled by corruption, overcrowding and mismanagement.

Human rights groups compare the current string of uprisings to the Carandiru prison massacre in 1992 in São Paulo, when the police stormed the facility and killed 111 inmates. An appeals court recently voided the convictions of 73 police officers for their participation in the killings.

The problems in Brazil's prisons that led to earlier episodes of carnage have intensified with the growing drug trade, security experts say. Brazil's prison population has swelled this century as the authorities lock up more people on minor drug offenses.

Brazil now has a prison population exceeding half a million, with about 40 percent of detainees awaiting trial. Drug gangs that originated in prisons are expanding their sway and battling one another for territorial control of the trade.

"This war between the criminal factions is worsening," said Antonio Cláudio Mariz de Oliveira, a former security official in São Paulo. "The problem is largely a result of the lack of attention towards the prison system, both by the government and the public."

"People only react when there's an episode like this," said Mr. Mariz de Oliveira. "Then they forget about it until the next one."

Indeed, some elected officials have expressed the hardened views held by crime-weary voters. José Melo, the governor of Amazonas State, said "there were no saints" among the dozens of inmates killed in the state's prisons this week, calling the victims murderers, rapists or gang members.

At the same time, officials in Mr. Temer's administration have tried to play down the prison crisis. "The situation is not out of control," said Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes.

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