Brazil’s jails are a grisly battleground for rival drug gangs

Last week’s massacres were shocking, but barbarism is routine inside Brazil’s prisons

Prisoners are transferred to a public jail following a riot at Anisio Jobim prison in Manaus, Brazil, on New Year’s Day, in which 56 prisoners were killed. Photograph: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

Prisoners are transferred to a public jail following a riot at Anisio Jobim prison in Manaus, Brazil, on New Year’s Day, in which 56 prisoners were killed. Photograph: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

 

Last week’s macabre prison massacres in Brazil, which left at least 100 prisoners dead following disturbances at jails in three states, managed to be both shocking and routine.

The violence saw victims beheaded and dismembered. Some reportedly even had their hearts ripped out by rival inmates. But the only thing shocking about such barbarism was the number of victims.

The death toll was the highest inside Brazil’s jails in a quarter of a century but the methods employed are all too common behind bars. It is little wonder a former justice minister described the system as “medieval” and said he would rather die than do time among the general population.

Primary responsibility for this carnage lies with the gangs that dominate the majority of prisons and who carried out the latest massacres. They have no problem taking responsibility for their actions.

The Família do Norte (Family of the North, or FDN), a drug-trafficking outfit in the north of Brazil, had local funkeiros compose music to celebrate its murder of 60 people on New Year’s Day in two jails in the Amazonian city of Manaus.

Revenge

Its main rival, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital, or PCC), a prison gang that originated in São Paulo state, recorded and circulated via WhatsApp video of the revenge it extracted on Friday when it killed 33 prisoners in the neighbouring state of Roraima.

The bloodshed is the latest episode in a war being waged among Brazil’s organised crime gangs, which had already left dozens dead inside and outside prison since 2015. On one side is the PCC, the country’s biggest and best-organised gang. It is waging a campaign to control Brazil’s wholesale drugs market and with it establish supremacy over the criminal underworld.

That has provoked a reaction from other gangs. Rio de Janeiro’s Comando Vermelho (Red Command, or CV), the second-biggest in the country, broke off its alliance with the PCC last year as it increasingly found itself pushed out of the Bolivian and Paraguayan border regions whose lucrative drug-trafficking routes are now largely under PCC control.

Alliances

Numerically and organisationally weaker, the CV is seeking to strike back at the PCC by forming alliances with other gangs such as the FDN.

The third biggest in Brazil, it resents the PCC’s push into its Amazonian territory. Last week’s deaths are unlikely to be the last in this brutal struggle for criminal power and the drug wealth that comes with it.

But decades of failed state policy is also responsible for this grim vista. The CV was born after political prisoners passed over some of their subversive ideology and methodology to the bank robbers they were locked up with in the 1970s in a policy designed to humiliate and break them.

The PCC was founded in 1993 by prisoners in São Paulo partially in response to the massacre of 111 prisoners by police at the notorious Carandiru jail. This history explains the gang’s motto: “Peace, Justice and Freedom”.

The chronic overcrowding in Brazil’s prisons means these gangs are able to flourish as the authorities have all but abandoned attempts to control much more than the prison walls. Imposing order over the general population is left to the gangs who have used this power to spread their control into the criminal underworld outside.

Root-and-branch reform

Worryingly, there is little sign politicians have the interest or will to implement the root-and-branch reform of a systematically dysfunctional justice system that is key to breaking the power of the gangs.

It took Brazil’s president Michel Temer three days to comment on the New Year’s Day massacre and then, bizarrely, he called it an “appalling accident”.

Days later his national secretary for youth resigned after he told reporters there needed to be more massacres, reflecting a deeply entrenched view within a society scarred by extreme levels of violence that the only good criminal is a dead one.

Following the latest killings, and knowing more are likely to follow, Temer’s government is rushing out a new national security plan it says will tackle the problem. But Brazilian politicians are masters at announcing such plans at moments of crisis. Implementing them is another story.

The odds are this latest initiative will join all the others that have gone before it as another missed opportunity for reform. And history shows the primary beneficiaries of this inertia will be the gangs.

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