Brazil prison chief removed over collusion in massacre allegations

Letters from dead inmates accuse man of accepting money from gang behind murders

The graves at Nossa Senhora Aparecida Cemetery of the inmates killed in the recent riots in prisons in Manaus, Amazonas state, Brazil. Photograph: Raphael Alves/AFP/Getty Images

The graves at Nossa Senhora Aparecida Cemetery of the inmates killed in the recent riots in prisons in Manaus, Amazonas state, Brazil. Photograph: Raphael Alves/AFP/Getty Images


The official in charge of a Brazilian prison where 56 inmates were murdered on New Year’s Day has been suspended from his job amid allegations he accepted money from the gang responsible for the massacre.

José Carvalho da Silva was removed after the discovery of letters written by two inmates in which they accused him of accepting money from the Família do Norte (Family of the North or FDN) drug trafficking gang in return for allowing it to smuggle drugs, mobile phones and weapons into the Compaj prison complex in the Amazonian city of Manaus.

In their letters the two prisoners – Alcinei Gomes da Silveira and Gezildo Nunes da Silva – also requested protection claiming they had received death threats. The letters were written 20 days before the massacre in which both men were murdered.

Authorities in Amazonas state said they will now investigate the dead men’s claims against Carvalho da Silva. The state judiciary will also look into why a request to it from the state public defender’s office to protect the two men was ignored.

The Compaj massacre was the bloodiest episode to date in a vicious dispute for power within Brazil’s criminal underworld. Most of the victims are believed to have been members of the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital, or PCC), a rival to the FDN that originated in São Paulo state and is Brazil’s biggest crime organisation.

Last Friday the PCC responded by murdering 33 prisoners linked to the FDN and its ally, Rio de Janeiro’s Comando Vermelho (Red Command, or CV). Since the start of the year the dispute, which has dragged in all Brazil’s main criminal gangs, has claimed at least 100 lives in jails in several states.

Meanwhile, a senator from Amazonas has accused the state’s governor of having sought the help of the FDN to get re-elected in 2014.

Senator Eduardo Braga said the gang promised José Melo 100,000 votes in return for “conditional liberty” inside the state’s prison system.

In a statement Mr Melo denied the accusation, made by the opponent he had defeated at the ballot box, saying it was “irresponsible and also criminal”. In October 2014 the governor was accused of seeking FDN support in his dispute against Mr Braga after a recording emerged allegedly of a conversation between a senior state penitentiary official in the Melo administration discussing support for his re-election battle with a jailed FDN leader.

The official acknowledged the conversation took place but denied he had sought the backing of the state’s biggest criminal gang for Mr Melo’s campaign and was only seeking to prevent it from staging a rebellion in the jail. He was nevertheless dismissed from his job.

Brazilian authorities have long been accused of excessive leniency and even collusion with organised crime, which in turn has allowed gangs gain control over the much of the country’s prison system.

According to some officials, the state government in São Paulo granted concessions to the PCC in order to bring to an end a mass uprising in dozens of jails and simultaneous attacks on police and prison officers by the gang in a wave of violence in 2006 which eventually left about 500 people dead, most killed in revenge attacks by police and police-staffed death squads.

São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin has always vehemently denied his administration cut a deal that ceded favourable prison conditions to PCC leaders in return for an end to the violence, contradicting the testimony of several of his own officials.

Since the violence ended in 2006 the jailed leadership of the PCC had been held together in a high security prison where they are allowed to associate with each other. In the decade since they have been able to oversee from prison a massive expansion in their business operations.

“They [São Paulo authorities] do not put more pressure on the PCC within the system. They let them control the prisons. They prefer to close their eyes to things rather than take action,” says Guaracy Mingardi, a criminologist and leading expert on organised crime.

The recent order by a São Paulo judge to transfer PCC leaders to solitary confinement has led to fears the supposed understanding established in 2006 could end, risking a new round of violence between the PCC and state authorities even as the gang fights its criminal rivals across Brazil.