The New York Times

Dozens of Inmates Killed as Prison Violence Escalates in Brazil

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.

Brazil's Deadly Prison System

The warning signs were written on the prison's graffiti-lined walls. The penitentiary in Manaus has experienced bloody riots before. In the days leading up to the weekend massacre, prison guards suspected that firearms were being smuggled into cellblocks housing drug trafficking groups. A collection of revolvers was turned over to the police when the riot came to end.

Investigators unearthed a network of tunnels under the prison's bloodstained floors, suggesting the attack was premeditated. Familia do Norte was sending a message: The P.C.C. is not welcome in the northern Brazilian state of Amazonas. A local judge was called in to negotiate the release of hostages, and he's now facing death threats.

As shocking as the prison riot is, it is not unprecedented. The most lethal episode of prison violence in Brazil occurred in 1992 when 111 inmates were killed during a riot in the Carandiru prison in São Paulo. Other outbreaks occurred in Rondônia in 2002, Maranhão in 2010, Pernambuco in 2011, Rio de Janeiro in 2014 and Roraima last year. Prison violence has been registered in at least 24 of Brazil's 26 states over the past decade.

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Historically, violence followed demands for improved prison conditions. But the latest massacre in Manaus stems from a different cause. It signals the rupture of a longstanding truce between the São Paulo-based P.C.C. and Rio de Janeiro's Comando Vermelho (Red Command), which is aligned with the Northern Family. These two gangs are fighting for control over the prison system and the cocaine trade.


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Part of the reason prison violence is so common in Brazil is that conditions in most of the country's penitentiaries are barbarous. There are an estimated 656,000 incarcerated people in state prisons, where there is officially space for less than 400,000. Yet roughly 3,000 new inmates are added to overcrowded penitentiaries each month. The prison population has increased by more than 160 percent since 2000. It's for good reason that a former justice minister reportedly said he'd rather die than spend time in a Brazilian prison.

Brazil's state prisons are overseen by drug gangs that act as judges, jurors and executioners. Most prisons are divvied up among competing gangs. The government is only nominally in control. Experts describe drug factions as a "parallel state." Gangs have long recruited their rank and file from prisons and organize trafficking and racketeering businesses from within their walls. Research has found that 70 percent of inmates who leave prison find their way back.

Successive governments, the United Nations and human rights groups have described crumbling buildings where torture and sexual violence are rampant. Studies have found that incarcerated Brazilians are around 30 times more likely to contract tuberculosis and almost 10 times more likely to be infected with H.I.V. than the general population.

Most Brazilians tolerate this state of affairs, but this forbearance is shortsighted. Brazil's prison wars routinely spill on to the street. In 2006, the P.C.C. unleashed a wave of attacks against law enforcement and penal personnel as a protest over prison conditions. Some 40 security agents were killed in riots in prisons and public spaces across São Paulo. The latest attacks in Manaus will surely inspire retribution inside and outside the prison gates.

Brazil's penal system reflects wider inequalities. For one, it is fundamentally elitist. Felons who happen to have a university degree - business executives charged with corruption, for example - frequently enjoy better conditions and don't have to share cells. Elsewhere, nonviolent first-time offenders are jammed together with extremely violent inmates. Most defendants cannot afford to hire a lawyer, and there is a chronic shortage of public defenders. Not surprisingly, those most likely to be killed while in custody are poor black males.

The leading cause of imprisonment is minor drug offenses, despite laws recommending that nonviolent crimes and possession not result in jail time. Judges and prosecutors favor heavy-handed prison sentences over rehabilitation or alternative sentencing arrangements. Brazilian politicians lack the political and moral resolve to do the right thing. Nor are they feeling any pressure from Brazilian citizens. A 2015 poll found that 87 percent of Brazilians favor lowering the criminal age of responsibility to 16 from 18. Public complacency ensures that prison violence continues unabated.

What is needed now is courageous leadership. Alexandre de Moraes, the minister of justice, has already announced some remedial measures in the wake of the Manaus massacre. He is planning to transfer gang leaders from state to federal prisons, which are better managed. But this is only an interim solution.

For Brazil to reform its prisons, it needs to reduce both the stock and flow of inmates. The first priority is to diminish the bloated caseload of pretrial detainees. Federal and state-level judges, prosecutors and public defenders should set up task forces to immediately resolve outstanding cases. Next, Brazil's juvenile justice system is as rotten as the one for adults and needs to be fixed. Mayors must assume a much greater responsibility in rehabilitating first-time offenders. Support for at-risk adolescents can reduce their likelihood of becoming gang members in adulthood.

The government urgently needs to regain control of public security, and the prison system in particular. Rather than imposing more draconian laws and building new prisons, Brazil needs to enforce existing legislation - including ensuring that suspects are provided hearings within 24 hours of their arrest and expanding the network of public defenders.

This is not just about ensuring the humane treatment of inmates. Strategies to decriminalize drugs, ensure proportional sentencing and provide rehabilitation for offenders are vastly more cost-effective than putting nonviolent offenders in jail and throwing away the key.

Brazil, a circus

Publicated in The New York Times


MAY 14, 2016

- One of Brazil's longest-running spectacles features a dizzying array of characters whose theatrics appear on millions of television sets most nights.


The ever-changing cast of 594 includes suspects accused of murder and drug trafficking, aging former soccer players, a judo champion, a country music star and a collection of bearded men who have adopted roles as leaders of a women's movement.

The cast even includes a clown who goes by the name Tiririca . But these are not actors. They are the men and women who serve in the national legislature.,Democracy can be a mystifying, rough-and-tumble affair anywhere, but Brazil's Congress has few equals.

As the nation endures its worst political upheaval in a generation, the lawmakers orchestrating the ouster of President Dilma Rousseff - who was suspended on Thursday and faces an impeachment trial on charges of manipulating the budget - are coming under renewed scrutiny.

More than half of the members of Congress face legal challenges, from cases in auditing court involving public contracts to serious counts like kidnapping or murder, according to Transparency Brazil, a corruption monitoring group.

The figures under investigation include the president of the Senate and the new speaker of the lower house. Just this month, the previous speaker, an evangelical Christian radio commentator fond of posting biblical verse on Twitter, was ejected to face trial on charges that he secreted as much as $40 million in bribes into Swiss bank accounts.

Many of the legislature's problems stem from the generous rewards to be found in Brazil's hydra-headed party system, an unwieldy collection of dozens of political organizations whose names and agendas often leave Brazilians scratching their heads.


There is the Party of the Brazilian Woman, for instance - a group whose elected members in Congress are all men."The electoral process allows many distortions," said Suêd Haidar, the party's founder and president. She sighed, acknowledging that many of the men who join have little interest in promoting women's rights.

One of those who joined the party, Senator Hélio José da Silva Lima, was accused of sexually abusing a young niece last year, though charges were later dropped. "What would become of us men if there were no women by our side, to bring us joy and pleasure?" he was quoted as saying in the Brazilian news media when asked about his decision to join the women's party.

The same public fury over endemic corruption and governmental mismanagement that helped drive Ms. Rousseff from power has long been directed at the cabal of politicians, most of them white men, whose penchant for back-room deals and self-enrichment has become part of Brazilian lore.


"The reputation of the political class in Brazil really can't go any lower," said Timothy J. Power, a professor of Brazilian studies at Oxford University."People compare the legislature to the 'House of Cards,'" he said, referring to the Netflix political drama, "but I disagree. 'House of Cards' is actually more believable."With 28 parties holding seats, the Brazilian Congress is the world's most fractured, according to Mr. Power. The runner-up, Indonesia's legislature, has a third fewer parties. "Brazil is not an outlier, it's a freak," said Gregory Michener, the director of the public transparency program at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, a university in Rio de Janeiro.


The parties tend to use words like "Democratic," "Christian" and "Republican" in their names, though "Labor" has them all beat. Among them are the Labor Party of Brazil, the Christian Labor Party, the Brazilian Labor Renewal Party and the National Labor Party. For the sake of variety, there are also the Workers' Cause Party and Ms. Rousseff's once-dominant Workers' Party."The entire system is a monster," said Juremir Machado da Silva, a columnist at Correio do Povo, a newspaper in the southern city of Pôrto Alegre.


Polling has shown that more than 70 percent of Brazilians cannot recall what parties the candidates they elect belong to, and that two-thirds of the electorate has no preference for any party. More important, experts say, is that most of the parties embrace no ideology or agenda and are simply vehicles for patronage and graft. In a typical four-year term, one in three federal legislators will switch parties, some more than once, according to a tally by Marcus André Melo, a political scientist at the Federal University of Pernambuco.


Brazilian lawmakers are among the world's highest paid, scholars say, with generous stipends that go well beyond their monthly salaries. They also receive free housing, health care and large staffs and enjoy special immunity from prosecution. Only the overworked Supreme Court can try them on criminal charges, a process that can take years.

"The only thing that's better than being a political party in Brazil is to be a church," said Heni Ozi Cukier, a political scientist at the university E.S.P.M. in São Paulo. "They're opportunists who are looking for something that gives them power, influence, protection." Forming a party requires collecting 500,000 signatures. Mr. Cukier said 62 parties were seeking official recognition, including one named after a soccer team.


Although Brazil's president leads one of the world's largest countries, he or she must forge coalitions with up to a dozen parties to get legislation passed in Congress. The price of loyalty is often a ministerial post, or three, depending on how many votes the party can deliver.

In some instances, cooperation involves the illicit exchange of cash. In 2005, a scandal known as mensalão, or big monthly payment, revealed the pervasiveness of such arrangements. To win votes in Congress, the party of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Ms. Rousseff's mentor and the standard-bearer of the Workers' Party, had been paying compliant lawmakers a monthly stipend of $12,000.

The most recent graft scandal - known as Operação Lava Jato, or Operation Car Wash - has proved even bigger, with billions of dollars in bribes directed to political parties from the national oil company, Petrobras. More than 200 people, from business tycoons to party leaders, have been implicated in the scandal, and their numbers are expected to grow.

Public fury over the scheme played a pivotal role in the ouster of Ms. Rousseff, who was chairwoman of Petrobras when the kickback arrangement was hatched, though she has not been accused of any wrongdoing. In her impeachment trial, she is accused of a budgetary sleight of hand in an effort to conceal Brazil's economic troubles and win re-election in 2014 - not of stealing to enrich herself.

The need to form alliances of convenience in Congress can lead to legislative chaos, especially when disgruntled partners bolt from the president's coalition. Ms. Rousseff, who once enjoyed a wide majority in the lower house, was ultimately knocked aside by the house's now deposed speaker, Eduardo Cunha, a onetime ally who faces a graft trial.

Mr. Cunha's party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, called the P.M.D.B., has become a particular source of outrage in Brazil. Critics say the party, founded five decades ago as an opposition party but tolerated by the nation's military dictatorship, has become a vast patronage trough for its members, who embrace a wide spectrum of ideologies.

The party's ace is its size, which means that presidents have to enter into a partnership that involves doling out coveted cabinet posts. Ms. Rousseff chose Michel Temer of the P.M.D.B. to be her vice president. This year, he turned against her and withdrew his party from her coalition, paving the way for Ms. Rousseff's impeachment trial. Mr. Temer, who has been convicted of violating campaign finance limits, is now the nation's president.

Political reform can be challenging, given that legislators must approve undoing the system that protects them. There have been some changes, including a recent law that bars candidates with criminal records from running for office for eight years, and a campaign finance law, scheduled to take effect this year, that limits the influence of corporate money.


The crush of Brazilian parties tends to favor celebrity candidates, whose name recognition helps vault them to the top of the ballot heap during elections. The most curious example is Tiririca the Clown, whose stage name translates as Grumpy.

In 2010, he ran for the lower house on a lark with the slogan "It can't get any worse," and his campaign literature included this tagline: "What does a congressman do? The truth is I don't know, but vote for me and I'll tell you." He prevailed with more than 1.3 million votes - nearly twice as many as the next candidate.

In an interview, Tiririca - whose real name is Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva, though Deputy Tiririca is the name on the house website - said he was often disappointed by the disarray in Congress.m"At first it was a joke," he said of his candidacy. "So I decided that if so many people believe in me, I would have to give it my best, and that's what I'm doing."

Anna Jean Kaiser contributed reporting from São Paulo, Brazil, and Paula Moura from Brasília.

A version of this article appears in print on May 15, 2016, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Brazil's Graft-Prone Congress, a Circus That Has Its Own Clown. Order

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