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Nineteen Killed in Brazilian Prison Rebellion

On Feb. 19, 2001, Brazilian authorities said they had regained control of 29 prisons in Sao Paulo state where some 25,000 prisoners had taken some 7,000 hostages in an apparently coordinated rebellion during the Sunday visiting day on Feb. 18. Some of the hostages were guards, but most were family members visiting the prisoners.

During the 17-hour revolt, 19 prisoners were killed and 77 were wounded; four police agents were also reportedly wounded by bullets. The uprising began at Carandiru, the largest prison in the state, with a [prison] population of about 8,000. Prison system director Nagashi Furukawa responded to the rebellion by announcing the suspension of family visits. On Feb. 20, after the first series of rebellions had been halted, a new protest broke out at a prison in Pirajui, also in Sao Paulo state.

It is unclear exactly how many of the 19 prisoners who died during the uprising were killed by police and how many by other prisoners. According to eyewitness accounts and press reports _ including television footage of the incident _ three prisoners were shot in the back by police at Carandiru.

On Feb. 20, Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling for a "thorough and objective investigation into the killings of 15 prisoners" during the uprising. Three prisoners at Andradina prison died after guards locked them in a sweltering van and "forgot" about them. The three are believed to have been leaders of a gang called First Command of the Capital (PCC), which reportedly organized the protest.

Before police stormed Carandiru, prisoners there began releasing the hostage visitors; many initially refused to leave the facility, however, fearing that as soon as they were gone, police would attack the prisoners.

As police began to storm Carandiru, thousands of relatives who were gathered outside tried to block them, fearing a massacre like the one that took place at the same prison on Oct. 2, 1992, when police killed at least 111 prisoners. [PLN, January `93.] Screaming "murderers," the relatives threw rocks and bottles at police; one person was arrested.

Not a single police agent has been brought to justice for the 1992 massacre at Carandiru. In April 2000, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned Brazil for the massacre, finding that the government had violated the prisoners' rights to life and bodily integrity. The commission specifically criticized the authorities' failure to investigate, prosecute, and punish the police agents responsible for the killings.

The PCC reportedly organized the Feb. 18 protest to demand the return to Carandiru of 10 of the group's leaders who had been transferred to other prisons the previous week. Police apparently underestimated the strength of the PCC, which has members throughout the state's prisons who stay in contact via cellular phone. The group is said to be involved in a number of activities ranging from drug trafficking, buying and renting cell space, charging members fees for protection from other [prisoners], and the planning and execution of escapes and rebellions.

As Amnesty International notes: "With a prison population of over 90,000...the Sao Paulo prison system has long been in a state of severe crisis." The human rights group mentions "extreme overcrowding, deaths in custody, the systematic use of torture, and lack of medical and sanitation facilities, further compounded by the use of under-trained and under-paid prison staff," as factors contributing to this crisis.

Source: Weekly News Update on The Americas

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