Prison murders illustrate a spike in gang killings in Brazil’s Amazon

. Jun 13, 2019
Brazil's prison system has been the stage for multiple killings Brazil's prison system has been the stage for multiple killings

As The Brazilian Report recently published in our Daily Briefing, the country’s most recent violence figures have shown a worrying increase of murder rates in the North and Northeast regions. While levels rose 24 percent nationwide between 2007 and 2017, the increase in northern and north-eastern states was a staggering 68 percent. The figures come from the Violence Map study, a yearly research project carried out by Brazil’s Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea) and the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety (FBSP). The latest study dovetailed with events one week previously, when 55 inmates were murdered during a series of prison riots outside of Manaus, the largest city in Brazil’s North region. In 2017, which is the latest year analyzed by the Violence Map, a 17-hour riot in a state penitentiary left 56 dead.

</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="prison murders" class="wp-image-19138" srcset=" 1016w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1016px) 100vw, 1016px" /></figure> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>On Sunday, May 26, during visitation hours at the Anísio Jobim Penitentiary Complex (Compaj), a fight broke out which resulted in 15 inmates being murdered. Some were choked to death, others were stabbed with toothbrushes fashioned into sharp weapons.</p> <p>The following day, another 40 prisoners were killed across five detention facilities in the Manaus surrounding area, including a further four at Compaj. The causes of deaths were the same: stabbing, strangulation, and choking with bedsheets.</p> <p>Indications show that the riots and killings were sparked by a conflict within one of the region&#8217;s leading drugs gangs, the <em>Família do Norte </em>(Family of the North)—or FDN, for short.</p> <h2>The origins of the Amazonian drug war</h2> <p>In order to properly understand the murders of May and the riots in 2017, we must first get some context on the operations of organized crime gangs all across Brazil.</p> <p>In the 2000s, Brazil&#8217;s borders became one of the most important territories in the world of organized crime. A decrease in the production of cocaine from Colombia meant that operations were ramped up in Bolivia and Peru. In order to get to Europe, these drugs would have to go through Brazil.</p> <p>Existing crime factions made moves to expand their reach to border regions and dominate these drug routes, controlling how the cocaine made it into the country, how it would be distributed to the large domestic markets of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and how it would be exported to Europe.</p> <p>To this day, there are two main entryways for drugs into Brazil. There is the so-called &#8220;hillbilly route,&#8221; where the product is taken down through Paraguay, crossing into Brazil on the border between Pedro Juan Caballero and the Brazilian town of Ponta Porã, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. From there, cargo is taken through the countryside and on to São Paulo and the Port of Santos.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h4 style="text-align:center">Drug routes through Brazil</h4> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="drug routes brazil" class="wp-image-19136" srcset=" 815w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 815px) 100vw, 815px" /><figcaption>From prison, gangs control the main drug routes in Brazil.</figcaption></figure> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>However, in the context of the Manaus prison killings, it is another key drug passage that takes more importance. It is the so-called &#8220;Solimões route,&#8221; which involves cocaine entering Brazil from Peru via the Solimões river—the name given to the upper portion of the Amazon river—sailing east to Manaus and on to key ports in the Northeast of Brazil.</p> <p>As a result, this region is highly contested. The major players are the São Paulo based Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC)—one of the biggest drugs gangs in South America—and the regional Amazon faction, Família do Norte (FDN). The latter is allied with the Comando Vermelho (CV), Rio de Janeiro&#8217;s most notorious drugs gang.</p> <p>Together, the CV and the PCC ran the drug smuggling business through Paraguay together, in a form of loose partnership that was never much more than a non-aggression pact. As a result, there was relative peace between these major gangs, which was observed by their allies, the FDN, in the North.</p> <p>This all changed in 2016, when international drug smuggler Jorge Rafaat Toumani—the &#8220;King of the Border&#8221;—was assassinated in Pedro Juan Caballero. The gunman used an anti-aircraft rifle to perforate Mr. Rafaat&#8217;s bulletproof 4&#215;4.</p> <p>The King was dead, and the power vacuum created by his murder led to the PCC and CV muscling for control over the border&#8217;s smuggling routes. A proxy war kicked off in the North and Northeast, where the PCC and FDN are kept in close proximity inside state penitentiaries.</p> <p>A wave of prison riots and killings began, with the PCC murdering members of the FDN, which retaliated and killed members of the PCC, which retaliated and killed members of the FDN, and so on. In the Compaj prison in Manaus, roughly 56 PCC affiliates were murdered, leading the remainder of the gang to be transferred to another facility.</p> <p>Tensions escalated all over the region, causing the spike in murders shown by the Violence Map.</p> <h2>Trouble in the Family</h2> <p>May&#8217;s riots, however, were different. As mentioned above, members of the PCC had been transferred away from Compaj, meaning that the 55 deaths at the end of last month came as a result of internal troubles within the Familia do Norte.</p> <p>The faction was led by two leaders, José Roberto Fernandes (known as &#8220;Zé Roberto da Compensa&#8221;) and João Pinto Carioca (&#8220;João Branco,&#8221; or JB). Once firm allies and partners, a rift has developed between the two, causing João Branco to form his own offshoot of the FDN—the Família do Norte Pura, or FDN Pura.</p> <p>Reports from the Amazonas state penitentiary department and statements sent via WhatsApp by FDN members, to which <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> obtained access, state that a plan to murder local leaders of the FDN, issued by João Branco and transmitted by his wife, Sheila Maria Faustino Peres, had been intercepted. Instead of João Branco picking off the top brass of the FDN, he saw his men murdered for insubordination.</p> <h2>Bursting at the seams</h2> <p>As is abundantly clear from the reports above, organized crime in Brazil is run from jail cells, with prisons being breeding grounds for criminal factions and an excellent source of recruitment for hegemonic gangs.</p> <p>There are 715,000 people in Brazilian jails at present—that accounts for one in every 292 residents of the country.</p> <p>Brazilian penitentiaries are bursting at the seams. Using data from 2017, prisons in Brazil could house 424,710 people, but the actual prison population was 710,238. In the North of the country, this disparity is even higher. For 33,042 places, there were 66,883 prisoners—over double the amount the system can withstand.

Euan Marshall

Euan Marshall. Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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