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Prison Violence in Brazil Connected to Abuse, Gangs, Overcrowding

Prison Violence in Brazil Connected to Abuse, Gangs, Overcrowding

A wave of riots and killings is sweeping inside and outside prisons in Brazil, but authorities and observers differ on whether the violence is the fault of rival gangs competing for the lucrative drug trade, a protest against horrific conditions in the nation’s chronically overcrowded prison system, retribution for mistreatment by guards or some combination of these factors.

Discontent over conditions at a prison in Cascavel, in southern Brazil, and rivalries between powerful local gangs are blamed for an August 2014 riot that led to the deaths of at least five prisoners and severely damaged the facility.

According to local and international news reports, two of the victims were beheaded while three others were pushed from the top of buildings and plummeted to their deaths. Two prison guards taken hostage during the riot were later released with only minor injuries.

“They are using the severed head of one of the prisoners to inflict psychological torture on one of the hostages,” said Jairo Ferreira, an attorney for the prison officers’ union, during the height of the unrest. “There are scenes of terror inside the jail now,” he told the local newspaper, Gazeta do Povo.

The BBC reported that as many as 1,000 prisoners took over parts of the facility, setting fire to much of it. Mara de Carli, spokeswoman for the Justice Secretariat of Parana state, said the uprising ended when government authorities met the prisoners’ key demand by transferring around 800 offenders to other facilities.

An April 29, 2014 riot at the Eunapolis prison in Bahia state left five dead and eight injured following a surprise inspection by prison officials. The deaths were attributed to rival gang members attacking each other. [See: PLN, Jan. 2015, p.56].

In the northern part of Brazil, at least 59 prisoners were killed during 2013 at a single prison in the state of Maranhão. A report prepared for Brazil’s Supreme Court revealed details of torture, sexual abuse and murder at the grossly overcrowded facility, where gangs were said to mete out punishment or retribution on a daily basis.

Brazil has “a medieval prison system, which not only violates human rights [but] does not allow for the most important element of a penal sanction, which is social reintegration,” said Brazil’s Minister of Justice, Jose Eduardo Cardozo, in 2012. The country’s prison system holds half a million prisoners in facilities that were built to house 300,000.

In February 2013, authorities deployed the National Guard to combat arson attacks in the state of Santa Catarina that were linked to conditions inside the prison in the state capital of Joinville, as well as to Brazil’s illegal drug trade. Over 20 attacks – mainly on city buses and installations – occurred across the upscale coastal state.

In the bus attacks, passengers were ordered off the vehicles by groups of gun- and knife-wielding youths, who then splashed gasoline over the seats and set the buses on fire.

Authorities believe the attacks were sparked by the arrest of an attorney who allegedly organized gang finances and acted as a liaison between incarcerated gang members and those on the outside. The attorney was charged with conspiring to organize the attempted murder of a prison official in late 2012 that instead led to the death of the official’s wife.

However, authorities admitted that the attacks were also fueled by a videotape of prisoners being abused by guards at the Joinville facility. Surveillance video of the January 18, 2013 incident shows guards marching dozens of half-clothed prisoners into a closed area, where they were forced to assume a fetal position before guards fired rubber bullets at their backs. Some were targeted with tear gas and pepper spray.

“Prisoners decided to orchestrate the attacks to call the attention of the population and authorities to issues of management of the prison system,” said Col. Nazareno Marcineiro, commander of Santa Catarina’s military police.

The arson attacks, and a similar wave of violence that occurred in November 2012, have been connected to a prison-based organization called Primeiro Grupo Catarinense (PGC), or First Santa Catarina Group. Similarly, a group operating from prisons in São Paulo was connected to a 2012 spike in targeted police killings in that city, in which more than 100 officers were killed, many in ambushes.

Despite efforts to prevent contraband in prisons, the gangs often have access to laptops and cell phones that allow them to coordinate the outside attacks. The president of the Human Rights Commission of the Joinville Bar Association, Cynthia Mario Pinto, interviewed prisoners and confirmed the attacks were “directly linked to the command of the PGC” due to festering anger over prison conditions and abuse.

Over the past decade, Brazil’s prison population has exploded due to tougher sentencing laws passed in response to high homicide rates. In some prisons, overcrowding is so bad that prisoners sleep in shifts, while others sleep standing up after tying themselves to the bars of their cells.

On August 29, 2014, the Regional Office for South America of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called for an investigation into violence in Brazil’s prison system.

“We are shocked for the violence seen recently in Brazilian prisons. Unfortunately, these are not isolated facts; they occur [on] a regular basis in several detention centers throughout the country,” stated Amerigo Incalcaterra, the Regional Representative for South America. “It is unacceptable that violence and deaths inside prison centers are seen as normal, everyday situations in Brazil.”


Sources: The New York Times, Wall Street Journal,,,


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