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Unrest in South American Prisons


On February 3, 1996, a specialized military police unit killed two prisoners and wounded another in a Sao Paulo police station after putting down a rebellion by 127 prisoners protesting a lack of water at the facility. "It's not normal" to shoot protesting detainees, admitted a Sao Paulo police official, adding that the agents involved had been suspended from their duties.

On March 28, Brazilian prisoners armed with sticks and handmade steel blades seized some 25 hostages during an inspection at a prison in the Brazilian state of Goias. The inspection was to check on reports of overcrowding at the facility which has a capacity of 450 but holds nearly 1,000 prisoners.

Among the hostages taken were the warden of the prison, security secretary for the state of Goias, president of the state's highest court, a number of police agents and a television crew.

On March 30, the state government agreed to the demands of the prisoners. Official spokespeople said the prisoners had demanded four cars, two armored cars, 10 weapons of varying caliber, 10 bullet-proof vests and $20,000. But having won agreement from the state on these demands, prisoners upped the ante, insisting they needed more higher caliber weapons, ammunition, cellular phones, food for three months and $31,000.

On March 31, as a prisoner pointed a pistol at him, the warden made a speech from the prison wall urging police not to attack. "Brazil doesn't need another Carandiru," he shouted, referring to a 1992 police massacre of at least 111 prisoners after a prison uprising in Sao Paulo. When his captor fired a shot into the air, the warden - watched by millions on live television - shouted "for the love of God" and sobbed as he asked his family to "forgive me for my mistakes."

On April 3, after the state agreed to the prisoners' latest demands - $97,000, eight escape vehicles, sixteen 38-caliber revolvers with ammunition, 25 bullet-proof vests and three cellular phones - the prisoners released all but 13 hostages.

On April 4, a group of about 40 prisoners, taking six hostages, made their escape in eight vehicles. Two of the fugitives were later killed in a clash with police. Authorities said about half the escapees eluded capture.

One of the hostages, Judge Sabino, was freed after the car he was in crashed with an armored police vehicle. On April 5, Sabino said he didn't blame the prisoners for rebelling, and said he would act as a defense witness to seek that prisoners' sentences not be increased for their participation in the rebellion. Sabino said the prison is a center of corruption, torture, mistreatment, drug trafficking and extortion of prisoners; he blamed the warden for the situation.

On April 12, Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso issued a decree allowing state governments to pardon prisoners serving sentences for common crimes. Between 15,000 and 18,000 prisoners (about a tenth of the total prison population) who are serving sentences of six years or less will be eligible for release after completing one-sixth of their terms. A justice ministry spokesperson explained that the decree will help reduce overcrowding in Brazil's prisons.


Over the week of April 1 through April 7, 1996, prison rebellions spread across Argentina. The events began on March 31, when some 800 prisoners seized control of the Sierra Chica and Azul prisons in central Buenos Aires province and took some 20 people hostage, including prison guards, several evangelical pastors and a judge. Prisoners demanded application of the "two for one" law, which counts each day after two years as two days towards eventual release. Other demands included more respectful treatment of visitors and an acceleration of pending trials.

On April 1, the rebellion spread to three other prisons in the Buenos Aires province. Prisoners demanded compliance with a law which prohibits prisoners being held for more than two years without being sentenced. Some 70 percent of Argentine prisoners are awaiting trial.

On April 2, the rebellion spread to five other prisons, and thousands of prisoners began a hunger strike in eight other prisons as a sign of solidarity. In all, over 10,000 prisoners were involved in the protests. By April 6, officials said that prisoners were in control of 17 prisons and at least 26,000 prisoners were involved in open rebellion.

On April 7, prisoners and government officials reached an agreement and the rebellions ended. Prisoners were promised that there would be no reprisals, but later 37 prisoners thought to have led the rebellions were transferred to various police stations. Their fate is unknown.

Law enforcement officials said they found human skulls, thigh bones and other body parts in the ovens of one prison. Records indicate that seven prisoners were missing. Based on interviews with some prisoners, officials believe that the seven missing were killed and cremated because they opposed the rebellion.

There were conflicting reports on government concessions made to the prisoners. Officials said that none were made beyond promises to enforce the two-for-one law. But newspapers said that prisoners were also promised a prison commission with prisoner representatives, and more lenient sentences for car theft.


On April 3, 1996, more than 200 Uruguayan prisoners began a peaceful rebellion in the Santiago Vazquez prison some 30 km west of the capital. On April 5, Uruguayan military troops moved into the area and roads leading to the prison were blockaded to prevent prisoners' family members from getting too close.

Interior Minister Didier Opertti said on April 5 that "the situation is normal and there is calm among the inmates." Opertti added that supreme court president Juan Marino, by his own choice, planned to talk with the prisoners about their concerns, which include the slow pace of trials and the scant interest by government appointed lawyers in their cases. Opertti denied that the government intended to forcibly remove a number of prisoners' families who had gained entrance to the prison and were occupying it in solidarity with the protesters.

We at PLN have no received no reports on the outcome of the Uruguayan prisoners' struggle.

El Salvador

As of June, 1996, there were 8,225 prisoners jammed into El Salvadorian prisons with a theoretical capacity of only 3,800. About 70 percent of them have never been convicted of a crime and are simply waiting to be charged and tried. Some have been incarcerated longer than the maximum sentences for the crimes they are charged with.

Mariona prison on the outskirts of the capital is designed to hold 800 prisoners. In May it held 2,381 and looked like a crowded slum. Prisoners build makeshift restaurants, stores and sleeping facilities to sell services to those who can afford them. For those who cannot afford better ones, cells designed to hold 10 people become the homes for 30.

In late May, Mariona prisoners announced that because of the insanely overcrowded conditions they would kill any new prisoners delivered to the prison. That announcement prompted officials to cap the population there, which worsened the overcrowding in other prisons.

In Late June, prisoners at the Santa Ana prison announced a plan to protest overcrowded conditions there, where 787 prisoners are jammed into a facility designed to hold 350. The plan involved placing 787 slips of paper in a container, four with the word death written on them. The prisoners would then hold a "lottery of death." Those drawing the four "death" slips would either hang themselves or their comrades would slit their throats.

Again, as we go to press PLN has not heard of further developments in El Salvador, including whether the "death lottery" was actually held. We will attempt to keep our readers updated on prison struggles in South and Central America as well as the rest of the world. As the U.S. Courts and Congress once again impede prisoners' access to the courts, pass ever more punitive sentencing laws, and overstuff America's already crowded gulags, perhaps PLN readers will begin to see the relevance of reporting of these struggles in foreign prisons.

Sources: Washington Post, Weekly News Update on the Americas

[The latter source is published weekly. Free one month trial subscriptions are available; otherwise, the cost is $25/yr. Write to: Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York, 339 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012.]

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