Brazil: At Least 57 Dead in Prison Riot Including 16 Decapitated
At least 57 people were killed, including 16 decapitated, when two rival gangs got into a fight and started a fire at a Brazilian prison early Monday morning, the Associated Press reported.
The fight broke out around 7 a.m. when members of the Comando Classe A gang entered the prison block of rival gang Comando Vermelho and started a fire, according to AP. Two prison guards were also taken captive but later released.
Guards were unable to stop the violence for five hours.
Comando Vermelho, also known as Red Command, is one of the oldest prison gangs in Brazil and is based in Rio de Janeiro. Comando Classe A is a local crime group from the state of Para in northern Brazil and is related to Brazil’s most powerful drug gang, First Capital Command. The two groups have been fighting since 2016 over drug smuggling routes, according to the BBC.
Altamira prison, where both groups are incarcerated, is at the very northern tip of the state of Para.
“It was a targeted attack. The aim was to show that it was a settling of accounts between the two groups, not a protest or rebellion against the prison system,” Jarbas Vasconcelos, state prisons chief, told the AP.
The Washington Post reported there were unconfirmed videos of a man waving a machete near a pile of severed heads. Pará Penitentiary System (Susipe) officials said they’ve only found knives at the scene and no firearms.
Most of the victims died of smoke inhalation, Susipe officials said.
Video caught on social media shows smoke and flames erupting from inside the prison walls. Because of the fire, guards were unable to get to the prison block quickly, Vasconcelos said. Inmates are held in converted old container units while a new building is being built.
The Altamira prison currently houses 343 inmates even though their capacity level is set at 163, according to the AP. A judge called the conditions in the prison “terrible” in a report by the National Justice Council.
Authorities told the AP that 46 inmates will be transferred to other prisons across Brazil and 10 of them will be sent to federal facilities.
In the past few months, Brazilian prisons have seen an uptick in violence. In two days during late May, 55 people were killed in four different prisons. The killings took place during visiting hours and victims were either strangled or stabbed with makeshift toothbrush shivs.
Robert Muggah argued in an opinion piece published by the US publication National Public Radio (NPR) that Brazil has had a history of violence in prison. Inmates are six times more likely to be murdered while imprisoned than on the outside.
In the past 10 years, he said, 24 out of 26 states in Brazil have seen some kind of prison riot.
Sometimes, the violence stems from rival gang control of drug trafficking routes, as it did during 2017 when at least 120 people were killed in different prisons across the northern part of Brazil, AP reported.
Brazil’s prison population is the third-largest in the world, behind those of China and the United States, with an estimated 704,395 people incarcerated in 2019, according to local media.
As the prison population continues to climb, many prisons are becoming overcrowded. Human Rights Watch reports that many gangs offer inmates “protection” since resources are stretched too thin and the gangs can recruit members.
Prison officials said inmates had set fire to a cell block in Altamira last year and that they had not received any kind of warning about Monday’s violence.