At least 55 killed in latest outbreak of gang violence in Brazil’s prisons

Most of the dead apparently strangled in their cells on Sunday and Monday

A relative of an inmate reacts in front of a prison complex in the Brazilian state of Amazonas after prisoners were found strangled to death in four separate jails. Photograph: Bruno Kelly/Reuters

A relative of an inmate reacts in front of a prison complex in the Brazilian state of Amazonas after prisoners were found strangled to death in four separate jails. Photograph: Bruno Kelly/Reuters

 

The leaders of a gang involved in Brazil’s latest prison massacre will be transferred to federal maximum security units later this week, authorities have vowed.

At least 55 prisoners were murdered in four jails in the jungle state of Amazonas after a power struggle between two wings of the Family of the North gang erupted in violence. Most were apparently strangled in their cells on Sunday and Monday.

Formed by the merger of the organisations of two prominent drug-traffickers, the Family of the North is Brazil’s third biggest criminal organisation and controls lucrative Amazonian river routes used to transport cocaine from Colombia and Peru into Brazil.

The latest massacre is the worst since the gang moved against a rival São Paulo faction in January 2017. That set off a spiral of violence in prisons in three states that left at least 126 people dead.

The governor of Amazonas state Wilson Lima said that once identified up to 20 Family leaders could be sent to federal prisons in response to this week’s massacre.

But Brazilian public security experts say the move will do little to tackle the underlying structural problems in the country’s prison system, which one former justice minister once described as “medieval”.

“As long as you do not address overcrowding everything else is not going to work,” said César Muñoz, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Brazil. “When you have prisons that are severely overcrowded prison staff cannot possibly control what happens inside them.”

As of 2016, when figures were last published, Brazil had 726,712 prisoners in a system designed to house 368,049 inmates, an occupation rate of 197.4 per cent. Severe overcrowding and the violence it generates has led to an explosion in prison gang membership as it offers a level of security to otherwise vulnerable detainees.

Much of the problem stems from the inefficiency of Brazil’s judicial system. Forty per cent of those in jail are on remand awaiting trial, many for relatively minor drug-related crimes. Frequently prisoners are held on remand in inhuman conditions for longer than the maximum sentence possible for the charges they face.

The Amazonas state government has implemented only two of 51 recommendations made in 2016 by the federal justice ministry’s own National Mechanism for Preventing and Combating Torture to improve conditions in its jails.

It also failed to investigate the private company that runs the state’s prions after the 2017 massacres, instead renewing its contract a year later. “There is clearly a failure of oversight in the prisons in Amazonas and a failure of accountability,” said Mr Muñoz of Human Rights Watch.