Brazil's prison massacres - a bloody start to the year

A flurry of brutal deaths in Brazil's overcrowded prisons has shocked the country.
by: 
Jan Rocha

Brazilians began the New Year in the most terrible way, with images of piles of headless, dismembered corpses, the result of a savage massacre in an Amazon prison. The photos were put on social media by the murderers themselves, in boastful celebration of their bloody crimes. On New Year’s Day, 56 prisoners died in the Anísio Jobim prison on the BR174 highway near Manaus, the Amazon capital, at the hands of fellow prisoners armed with guns smuggled into the jail. Another four were killed at another prison.

31 of the 33 killed in the Monte Cristo jail 

Four days later, 33 prisoners in the Monte Cristo prison near Boa Vista, the Roraima state capital, were knifed and dismembered, in some cases their hearts cut out, by fellow prisoners. Then on Sunday came news of another five deaths at the old Public Jail in Manaus, hurriedly re-opened after the massacre to house surviving prisoners from the Anísio Jobim prison, although it had been closed down months before as uninhabitable.  Altogether almost 100 prisoners were killed by fellow inmates in the course of the first week of the New Year, a grim beginning to what promises to be a grim year.

mother of one of the prisoners breaks down outside Anísio Jobim jail.

Forensic teams in Manaus and Boa Vista have had their work cut out trying to identify and put together the dismembered bodies. The appalling violence was carried out by rival criminal organisations, and there may be more to come. The first massacre was the work of a relatively new faction called the Northern Family (Família do Norte, FDN), created in 2006, which now dominates prisons in many of Brazil’s northern Amazon states, and is affiliated to the Rio-based Red Command (Comando Vermelho, CV). The victims were alleged members of the long established First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital, PCC), which began in São Paulo in 1993. The massacre at the Boa Vista prison was said to be a revenge attack.

These criminal gangs are in dispute over control of the growing, highly profitable cocaine trade in the Amazon region. Brazil is not yet a cocaine producer itself, but it shares almost 3,000 kilometres of Amazon frontiers with the major producers – Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. US intelligence agencies say the trade is worth half a billion dollars a year.

Some analysts believe that the Mexican cartels which dominate Central America are beginning to look further south, to an area known as the Amazon Trapezium – the tripartite border of Brazil, Peru and Colombia. It is there that the Solimões river has become the main route for the drug, which travels down from the Andes to Manaus.

Riverine dwellers and members of indigenous communities are being forced to work for the heavily armed criminal organisations as mules. Some of their weaponry is said to be supplied by those FARC guerrillas who have not signed up to the peace deal. The atrocities not only shone a spotlight on the spreading tentacles of the drug trade, but they also revealed a government completely out of its depth when faced with such a situation.

After remaining silent for three days following the first massacre, President Temer amazed everyone by referring to it as an acidente pavoroso or a “dreadful accident”.  He then tried to explain that the word accident also meant tragedy, but could not dispel the impression that he had no idea what he was talking about.

The massacre in Manaus, and the retaliation in Boa Vista, were not only premeditated acts of violence, discussed during conversations on mobile phones intercepted by police taps, but there had been many warnings by prison inspectors, federal government monitors, and public prosecutors of the inevitability of violence unless prison conditions, especially the chronic overcrowding, were improved.

In the Manaus prison, over 1,200 prisoners were crammed into a space intended for 454. In the Boa Vista jail, the lack of cells had led to the creation of a favela inside the prison, with inmates living in makeshift shacks. Members of the local Bar Association (Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil, OAB) said that during a visit to the Monte Cristo prison they found open sewers, broken lighting, and untreated sick prisoners.

The overcrowding is due to the steep rise in prison numbers. With over 600,000 prisoners, Brazil now has the world’s 4th largest prison population, surpassed only by the US, Russia and China. Over 40% are on remand, awaiting trial. Many of these will be acquitted or sentenced to terms lower than those they have already served.  Some prisoners have completed their original sentences, but due to administrative incompetence or the lack of a lawyer, remain locked up.

The vast majority are in for drug trafficking, often involving small amounts. A minority have practised violent crimes. Inside the prisons there is total promiscuity: men who have failed to keep up with child maintenance payments are mixed with hardened criminals. To survive the brutal life inside prison, many have no option but to join the dominant criminal faction in their prison wing.   

Comando Vermelho

Justice Minister Alexander de Morais blamed the local authorities for the massacres, overlooking the fact that he had denied federal help when the Roraima governor had requested it in November. He then announced the building of five more federal prisons, and a national security plan of medium- and long-term measures. These include long overdue equipment to block the use of mobile phones. These seem to have become ubiquitous in prisons, with even drones being used to deliver them to prisoners. The phones have enabled leaders of the FDN and PCC to order the massacres of their enemies.

Under pressure to take more immediate action, he announced a meeting of state security chiefs – in 8 days’ time. Morais’ proposals were criticised by the government’s own Human Rights Secretary, Flavia Piovesan, who said that building new prisons was a short-term palliative measure while what was needed was an end to the culture of mass imprisonment, the use of different kinds of sentences, and restorative justice.

Bruno Júlio with his father

In stark contrast, another member of Michel Temer’s government, the until-now unknown Youth Secretary, Bruno Júlio, declared “They ought to kill more, do a massacre a week.” The son of a policeman who is also a federal deputy, this advocate of mass murder enjoyed an office in the Planalto Palace, but was forced to resign after his extraordinary comment.

All the experts consulted by the media criticised the plan for more prisons, which would become recruiting grounds for the criminal factions, and said the solution was to reduce the prison population. Frei Betto, the ex-Dominican author, wrote an open letter to the Justice Minister in which he recalled his own imprisonment and suggested that jails should be transformed into workshops and schools, where inmates would be able to earn small amounts of money and gain remission.  

This may sound utopian in Brazil’s present prison situation. But Betto has an answer: “Utopia? No, experience. Just analyse the rates of recidivism amongst those who, in [the prison of] Presidente Venceslau did the secondary school course and the painting, theatre and bible study workshops. All administered by us, half a dozen political prisoners inserted into the mass of prisoners.”

This article was written by a Latin American Bureau expert. For more articles visit www.lab.org.uk