Altamira: how a quiet Amazonian town became Brazil’s murder capital

. Aug 03, 2019
altamira brazil amazon

On Monday, a prison riot in the city of Altamira, in the northern state of Pará, resulted in the deaths of at least 58 people. Just 20 years ago, such unrest and violence would have been unthinkable in Altamira, but the city has undergone one of the most shocking descents of any of the world’s municipalities.

Altamira is a peculiar place. It is the largest municipality in Brazil by area, spreading over 160,000 square kilometers, which makes it bigger than Greece.

It serves as the gateway to the Xingu River—one of the main tributaries to the Amazon—and it is a crucial point on the Trans-Amazonian highway, which cuts directly across the world&#8217;s biggest tropical rainforest.</p> <p>Crucially, it is also home to the <a href="">Belo Monte Dam</a>, a massive hydroelectric complex under construction in the &#8220;big bend&#8221; of the lower Xingu River. Currently running with an installed capacity of 8,176 Mega Watts, it will become the world&#8217;s fourth-largest dam once fully completed.</p> <p>While the undertaking put Altamira on the map for the first time, the city&#8217;s descent into lawlessness and violence is closely tied to the origins of Belo Monte.</p> <h2>From idyllic to infernal</h2> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="664" src="" alt="The banks of the Xingu River altamira" class="wp-image-21699" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>The banks of the Xingu River. Photo: Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <p>In 2000, Altamira had an estimated population of 77,000 and crime rates comparable to Brazil&#8217;s safest cities. A murder rate of only 9.1 per 100,000 people saw it among the most peaceful places in the country.</p> <p>The following decade saw Altamira grow, as most inland Brazilian cities did in that period. However, once the works contract to build <a href="">Belo Monte</a> was awarded to the Norte Energia consortium, the city began to change dramatically.</p> <p>Thousands upon thousands of laborers flocked to Altamira in search of work on the new dam. Estimates vary but it has been suggested that some 50,000 young men have gone to the city for work since 2010. The population of the city now stands at 113,195, according to official data—almost a 50 percent increase in less than 20 years.</p> <p>This influx of manual labor was never going to be sustainable for a simple town with limited infrastructure, but the situation worsened as time went on. In 2014, at the height of the Belo Monte works, Norte Energia employed some 33,000 people on their construction site—roughly one-third of the Altamira population at the time.</p> <p>Now, with the majority of its 24 turbines completed and fully operational, only a few thousand people are employed at the Belo Monte Dam. &#8220;Then you can imagine, 30 percent of the migrants return home, and the rest remain in the city without housing, jobs, health or any prospects,&#8221; said Jaime Luiz Cunha de Souza, a researcher at the Federal University of Pará.</p> <p>With this pool of poor, unemployed, and often single men in Altamira, preceded by a frantic and unequal economic growth in the city, prostitution, drug trafficking, and violence spiked.</p> <p>In 2015, the once sleepy town of Altamira became the most violent city in Brazil. The murder rate that year was an astonishing 124 per 100,000 inhabitants, around one-third higher than homicide rates in Honduras, the murder capital of the world, and four times the national average in Brazil.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/563792"></div><script src=""></script> <h2>Gang wars</h2> <p>Organized crime already existed in Altamira before the arrival of Belo Monte. Of the cities dotted across the so-called &#8220;Solimões&#8221; drug route—which involves the movement of cocaine from Peru and Colombia, down the Amazon River and on to the key ports of Belém and Fortaleza—Altamira has a particularly strategic location, with access to the Xingu River and Trans-Amazonian highway.</p> <p>The local crime faction is the so-called Class-A Command (CCA), which was set up in 2008 by the Barbosa brothers Oziel, Luziel, and Lucenildo. Oziel Barbosa was killed in a confrontation with the police in 2016, and Luziel is now in charge of the faction from inside the Altamira prison, from where he orchestrated <a href="">Monday&#8217;s bloody massacre</a>.</p> <p>Before Belo Monte, the CCA rarely entered into conflict with rival gangs, despite the occasional presence of the Manaus-based Família do Norte (FDN), and the nationwide Comando Vermelho (CV), which controls drug trafficking in Pará&#8217;s state capital of Belém.</p> <p>However, once again, Belo Monte was responsible for disturbing this balance and tipping Altamira into chaos. The dam works required the relocation of several communities alongside the Xingu River, where most of the drug gang activity was concentrated. The process saw this population moved to so-called Collective Urban Resettlements, which were newly built to take in these displaced neighborhoods.</p> <p>However, Norte Energia carried out this process in a haphazard and reckless fashion, splitting up communities. Residents no longer know who lived beside them, and rival drug dealers were forced to fight for the same territories, sparking more violence.</p> <h2>No help from the state</h2> <p>The government had promised to build the Vitória do Xingu Penitentiary by 2015 as a way of loosening the pressure on the Altamira prison, which was already overcrowded at the beginning of the 2010s.</p> <p>At the time of Monday&#8217;s massacre, there were 343 inmates in the Altamira Regional Recuperation Center, though the facility was only built to house 163. Meanwhile, works on the Vitória do Xingu prison are still not complete.</p> <p>This week&#8217;s violence, although shocking, was no surprise in a town which lost its grip on public security a long time ago.

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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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