Brazil kicked off 2017 with one of its deadliest prison riots to date. A total of 56 people died during the riot, and 184 prisoners escaped (most of whom are still at large). While the brutality that took place – the beheading of dozens of prisoners – was shocking, we cannot label it as a surprise. A 2015 report informed authorities that gang rivalry was a significant risk. It stated: “The power of the prison’s administration is limited, and officers are negligent.”
The January 1st prison riot was the third in the Amazon region since October. Three months ago, two different riots killed at least 33 people. Gangs beheaded twenty-five prisoners.
For decades, Brazil’s prison system has been on the brink of total collapse. Overpopulation, disrespect for human rights, and outright neglect are the rules. Brazil has a sufficient infrastructure to house 393,842 inmates. Instead, the Brazilian prison population is 644,575. Every year, the number of detainees in our jails increase by 7 percent. There are currently 300 prisoners per 100,000 people in Brazil, while the world average is 144.
Only 25 years ago, Brazil’s prison population was roughly 90,000. According to a United Nations report, 40 percent of inmates today are under temporary arrest. It means that they are still waiting for trial. In the U.S., where 2.3 million people are behind bars, those without a final sentence represent “only” 17 percent.
Abusing temporary arrest is not only expensive to the state, but also highly ineffective. Such policy mixes people arrested for minor offenses with members of criminal gangs. It primarily provides those groups with an army of recruits.
Brazil’s Most Powerful Gangs
The Amazonas prison riot was only the latest chapter in the war between São Paulo’s PCC (First Command of the Capital), and Rio’s Red Command (CV, in the Portuguese acronym). Sunday’s riot turned into the second-largest prison massacre in national history following Carandiru in 1992.
The roots of Brazil’s criminal organizations trace back to the years of the military dictatorship. It originated after men convicted of common crimes were housed the same cells as political prisoners who fought the dictatorship in paramilitary organizations. Learning about politics and social organization, a group of criminals became cognizant of how powerful the inmate population could become if able to unite.
In the 1980s, the Red Command gained power and money after Brazil entered into the international drug trafficking route. Brazil is in a strategic location for sending cocaine to Europe, and furthermore, we are a powerful market for low-quality cocaine. The group is now present in neighboring countries, including Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay.
The Red Command has originated several other criminal organizations, such as São Paulo’s PCC – which dominates the city’s drug trafficking.
In fact, the PCC has changed through the years. First, it was a more politicized organization, with a discourse for the respect of inmates’ human rights. Now, however, it operates more like a company, with drug trafficking, kidnapping, and armed robbery among its primary sources of income.
While authorities attribute the Amazonas prison riot to the PCC-CV rivalry, it is the result of a far older problem. Brazilian authorities have not invested much in rehabilitating prisoners. According to Guaracy Mingardi, a member of the Brazilian Forum for Safety, “the state has limited itself to jailing criminals, but with no control inside the penitentiaries.”
In general, prisoners are still able to run their criminal endeavors from inside jails. Many routinely attempt to scam people from inside the prison system, using cell phones to get money from innocent people.
The United Nations published a statement on Monday asking for an investigation into the massacre. The international organization said that it was a result of chaos in Brazil’s prison system. “The people who died were under the custody of the state, which is responsible for them,” the document read.