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200 Dead in Brazil Prison Uprisings, Street Violence

In May 2006, approximately 200 people were killed in Sao Paulo, Brazil as gang members of the Primerio Comando da Capital ? the First Capital Command, known by its Portuguese initials, PCC ? clashed with police in the streets and rioted in prisons.

The violence began after prison officials learned of a plot by the PCC to take control of several prison units on Mother?s Day. When 765 gang members were slated for transfers to more secure facilities in an effort to thwart the planned takeover, PCC leaders activated their members both inside and outside the prisons.

On May 12, 2006, prisoners took about 200 hostages, including visiting family members and guards. Communicating by cell phone, PCC leaders inside the prison then mobilized members on the outside, who launched attacks on the police. Gang members used machine-guns, grenades and homemade bombs to attack police stations and police cars. Policemen were also killed in bars and at their homes. By the end of the day over 55 attacks had left 19 police dead.

?They have struck at the spinal cord ... of our security,? said Sao Paulo State Security Secretary Saulo de Castro Abreu Filho.

Fighting escalated on May 13 as PCC members began targeting banks, shopping malls and busses. Eleven banks were bombed and over 80 transit busses torched after the passengers were removed. The violence spread out of Sao Paulo proper and into the suburbs of Carapicuiba, Guaruihos and Osasco, in addition to the costal cities of Cubatao and Gauruga.

Ten prisons rioted in the neighboring states of Mato Grosso do Sul and Parana in sympathetic response to the Sao Paulo uprising. More than 20 policemen were killed in the second day of violence.

Inside the prisons, the mass hostage-taking added anxiety and chaos to the already grossly-overcrowded prison system. Brazil?s prisons and jails are designed to hold about 250,000 prisoners. They currently house over 360,000 ? the fourth largest prison population in the world.

At some facilities prisoners are housed in bunks stacked four-high, or sleep on mattresses on the floor among rats and insects. They rely on food brought in by visitors to supplement the meager prison meals, which have been described as ?starvation rations.?

Prosecutor Fernando Capez acknowledged the prisons? problems. ?Our facilities are really human warehouses, universities for crime, factories for revolt,? he stated.

Paulo Mesquita of Sao Paulo?s Human Rights Watch agrees. ?The policy here is strongly oriented toward putting people in prison. Even if that is a good policy, the judiciary and the penitentiary system have to keep up. Police have a goal of putting people in prisons that are not prepared to handle them.?

Julita Lemgruber, a criminologist from Rio de Janeiro, stated that Sao Paulo?s prison problems go deeper than just overcrowding. She attributes the violence to a combination of government corruption and a fatalistic outlook of prisoners. ?These guys know they are going to die. They are going to die at the hands of their enemies or at the hands of police.?

In spite of the obvious need for prison expansion to relieve chronic overcrowding, Brazil?s President, Luiz Inacio ?Lula? da Silva, cut the annual prison budget by fifty percent in 2005. Sentencing reform is not even an issue because a majority of Brazilian prisoners have not yet been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial.

PCC was organized in 1993 by eight prisoners as a politicized gang that advocated for prison reform. A riot at the Carandiru prison in 1992 had left 111 prisoners dead at the hands of the military police. The massacre quickly enlarged the ranks of the PCC, which now has an estimated 80,000 members and is the predominant gang at about 80% of Sao Paulo prisons and jails.

According to Rev. Valdir Joao Silveira of the Prison Pastoral group, an organization of the Roman Catholic Church, the PCC has achieved positive prison reforms. While the gang controls the drug trade in prison, it has banned crack cocaine. The PCC has no tolerance for prison rapists, who are often beaten or killed, and allegations of guard brutality have decreased during the gang?s reign.

In 2001, PCC prisoners under the direction of Idemir Carlos Ambrosio (aka ?the Shadow?) took control of 29 Sao Paulo prisons and seized 2,500 hostages in riots that left 16 dead. The May 2006 ?mega rebellion? was intended to be a repeat of the 2001 uprising on a larger scale.

Authorities believe that several leaders run the PCC from inside the prison system. But the consensus is that Marcos Willians Herba Camacho (aka ?Marcola?) is the mastermind of the latest violence. Camacho is serving 44 years for bank robbery and was one of the prisoners slated for transfer when the bloodletting began.

Human rights expert Renato Simones calls the prison crisis ?a power struggle,? stating ?the PCC feels emboldened because it senses the government is weak.?

Many citizens sense the same thing. Lucia Sousa de Silva had to shut down her grocery store early because of the violence, which lasted four days. ?The police are totally outgunned,? she said. ?They try to protect us, but really they?re unprepared.?

?It?s a civil war,? remarked newsstand worker Manuela Nascimento. ?Now I leave my house scared and go to work scared.?

Although the federal government offered 4,000 troops to help restore order, the offer was rejected by Sao Paulo state Governor Cláudio Lembo, who said he had control of the situation. Many saw it as a ploy by Lembo to save face politically.

Police claim the PCC is responsible for a wide variety of crimes including arms trafficking, bank robberies, drug dealing and prison breaks. But official reports indicate that police were responsible for the deaths of at least 79 gang members during and after the May violence, plus an unknown number of civilian fatalities.

?I don?t believe there are death squads today that are formally organized,? said Gov. Lembo. But he conceded that an investigation could reveal police brutality. ?It?s incredible that a city this size can maintain social discipline,? he acknowledged. Brazil is the home of the Latin American death squad which were first formed after a military coup in 1964, with CIA assistance, to crush leftist dissidents. While Brazil is nominally a democracy the death squads have remained and instead of political dissidents now target criminals, the homeless, street children and homosexuals.

Lembo insisted that the riots were the result of an ?absence of discipline? in the prison system. Julita Lemgruber disagrees. ?To say that what is needed is a rigid disciplinary code within the prisons is hypocritical ... federal legislation already exists on how prisons should be run,? she said.

?The lack of services provided by the state gives room to criminal gangs to impose terror,? says Lemgruber, who ran the Rio de Janeiro prison system from 1991 to 1994.

Both Simones and Lemgruber point to pervasive corruption within the Sao Paulo prison system. It is estimated that the PCC operates with the assistance of about 1,800 corrupt guards and wardens who turn a blind eye to the gang?s activities. Lemgruber notes that PCC leaders learned of the planned prison transfers, which touched off the May rebellion, from their contacts working in the congressional building.

?What?s happening in Sao Paulo?s prison system and the rise of gang culture there is a reflection of the long-term failure of the whole criminal justice system,? stated Amnesty International researcher Tim Cahill.

The government?s containment of the May prison riots was brutal. At one penitentiary in Araraquara, 1,400 prisoners were forced into outdoor yards designed to hold only a few hundred; guards welded the gates shut and cut off the electricity. Food was lowered from guard towers and prisoners had to sleep in the open air.

However, despite crackdowns, the violence didn?t dissipate. A month later, in June 2006, a series of eight prison riots occurred in which over 20 guards and prisoners were injured. On June 17 more than 250 people, mostly visitors, were taken hostage at the Viana prison in the Espiritu Santo state in a protest over prison conditions. Two prisoners were killed, including one who was decapitated. The hostages were released on June 20 and the other prison riots were quickly quelled by authorities.

Another surge of violence involving the PCC occurred the following month. On July 12, 2006, nearly 40 attacks took place in Sao Paulo, resulting in at least five deaths. Police stations, banks, stores and off-duty prison guards were targeted; notes left at some of the attack sites criticized ?oppression? in the prison system.

On October 29, two prisoners and a police sergeant died during a riot at a jail in Volta Redonda. The sergeant was reportedly shot by prisoners after they took a guard?s shotgun; the prisoners were burned to death.

Most recently, on November 9, 2006, 44 gang members at the Presidente Bernardes prison, including PCC leader Marcos Willians Herba Camacho, staged a hunger strike and threatened to kill prison guards if their demands were not met. ?There has been a total inversion of the power structure,? said Joao Rinaldo Machado, head of the Sao Paulo state prison guards union. ?The state is no longer in control of the prisons, and by threatening to unleash a prison rebellion, inmates can do pretty much what they want inside.?

Sources: Associated Press, BBC News, Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, Reuters, New York Times

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