Latest riot exposes Brazil’s inhumane prison system

. Jul 29, 2019
prison riot massacre brazil

Reports of a deadly prison riot in the North region has shocked Brazil. At least 57 inmates have died—16 of them having been beheaded, with several others asphyxiated—in the city of Altamira, following a clash between drug gangs. Unless the body count rises yet further, this will be the second-deadliest riot of the year. In May, a series of attacks in prisons of the state of Amazonas killed 55.

Prison massacres have become morbidly recurrent in Brazil, as the inmate population explodes, with brutal incarceration conditions in most states. Over the past two and a half years, multiple riots left 227 dead. 

</p> <p>This latest massacre exposes the inhumane conditions in Brazilian prisons. Overpopulation, disrespect for human rights, and outright neglect are the rule. Brazil has the carceral infrastructure to house 415,960 inmates, but the Brazilian prison population, according to the National Justice Council, is at least 812,564 (some states have not provided full data).&nbsp;</p> <p>In absolute terms, Brazil has the fourth-largest prison population in the world, trailing only the U.S., China and Russia—two of which have much larger populations. And, every year, the number of detainees in Brazilian jails increases by 8.3 percent. If that pace continues, Brazil will have 1.5 million prisoners by 2025. There are currently 335 prisoners per 100,000 people in Brazil, while the world average is 144.</p> <p>What is particularly striking is that well over a third of Brazil&#8217;s prison population (41.5 percent, to be exact) consists of those still awaiting trial.&nbsp;</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/549419"></div><script src=""></script> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/549445"></div><script src=""></script> <h2>Mass incarceration policies</h2> <p>While the three countries that incarcerate the most people in the world saw a drop in the inmate population between 2008 and 2015, Brazil had a 33 percent explosion in that period. According to lawyer Viviane Balbuglio, this reflects several policies that encourage mass incarceration—a tendency that usually affects black and poorer populations much worse.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;Public safety policies all go towards a harsher stance on crime … The trend starts in Brazil with the law against heinous crimes in the 1990s. Having so many people behind bars means that the state is having to spend <em>a lot</em> of money on prisons, instead of funding education and healthcare policies,&#8221; she told <a href=""><em>Ponte</em></a>.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/549461"></div><script src=""></script> <p>Brazil&#8217;s prison system is indeed a costly one: the country spent BRL 15.8 billion over the past two years on the system. Each inmate ends up costing the state BRL 23,000 per year. Just for the sake of comparison, the Fund for the Development of Basic Education (Fundeb) was allocated, in 2017, BRL 2,900 per student.</p> <p>In every single one of Brazil&#8217;s 27 states, prisons are overcrowded, with Pernambuco faring the worst, where the system is 137 percent overcapacity. Nationally, there are 70 percent more inmates than the facilities were meant to house.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/549480"></div><script src=""></script> <p>In a recent report, Supreme Court Justice Marco Aurélio Mello wrote, &#8220;the liberty-privation penalties enforced in our prisons end up being cruel, inhumane sentences. Inmates become &#8216;garbage worthy of the worst possible treatment&#8217;, and to them, any right to a minimally safe, dignified existence is denied.&#8221;</p> <p>According to a study by the Federal Accounts Court, a sort of audit tribunal that monitors public spending, it would take BRL 97 billion in investment over the next 18 years to &#8220;end overpopulation, reform precarious prison units, and make the system fully functioning.&#8221; The chances of that happening are zero—due to the government&#8217;s cash-strapped situation, and Brazil&#8217;s mentality that &#8220;a good criminal is a dead criminal,&#8221; as the popular catchphrase adopted by the president goes.</p> <h2>The Amazonian drug war</h2> <p>In the 2000s, Brazil’s borders became one of the <a href="">most important territories in the world of organized crime</a>. 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 criminal factions made moves to expand their reach to border regions and dominate these drug routes, controlling how 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 “hillbilly route,” 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> <p>As a result, this region is highly contested. The major players are the São Paulo-based <a href="">Primeiro Comando da Capital</a> (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’s most notorious drug gang.</p> <p>Together, the CV and the PCC would run the drug smuggling business through Paraguay, in a loose partnership that was little more than a non-aggression pact. As a result, there was relative peace between these major gangs, which was also observed by their allies, the FDN, in the North.</p> <p>A wave of prison riots and killings began, with the PCC murdering members of the FDN, who retaliated and killed members of the PCC, who in turn 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—both in and out of prisons.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p><em>This article has been updated on July 29, 2019—11:42 pm.</em>

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Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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