Brazil: Violent Video a Testimony for Big Prison Crisis

EspañolBrazilian publication Folha de São Paulo released an extremely disturbing video this week, showing prisoners playing with the dead bodies of three fellow inmates, two of which had been decapitated. The incident occurred in December, but the Union for the Penitentiary Workers in Brazil shared the video with the newspaper just this week.

The massacre took place at Pedrinhas Prison, the largest in the state of Maranhão, located in northern Brazil. The victims, whose bodies appear in the video, were Diego Michael Mendes Coelho (aged 21), Manoel Laercio Santos Ribeiro (46), and Irismar Pereira (34).

Warning: this video contains extreme images that may hurt the sensitivity of some people.

Violence is no stranger to the region. Brazilian journalist Paulo Eduardo Martins told the PanAm Post that these incidents happen because of “power struggles among gangs, who operate in different economic sectors, from drug trafficking to passenger transport.”

As soon as the newspaper released the video, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff immediately authorized the transferring of agents from the National Guard in efforts to help strengthen security at the compound. In addition, she called an emergency meeting to address the crisis affecting the state and the prison. The Justice Ministry and Maranhão’s state government have jointly decided to transfer some of the criminal leaders inside the prison, and authors of the video, to maximum security facilities.

Human Rights minister, Maria do Rosário Nunes, also called an emergency meeting with the entire Human Rights Defense Council. The council stated that the events happened amidst a “national context of grave violations in the penitentiary system.”

Non-governmental organizations, such as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), were outraged by the video and demanded an investigation. The Brazilian AI delegation expressed their concern for the lack of solutions, given the level of violence.

Hacinamiento o sobrepoblación es uno de los problemas más graves en las cárceles de Brasil. Fuente: Periódico 24
Overcrowding is one of the biggest problems in Brazilian jails. Source: Periódico 24.

Previous History

The National Justice Council (NJC) recently reported that authorities from Maranhão have failed to control violence in the prison. Overcrowding, one of the largest problems the prisons face, cannot guarantee the “physical integrity of inmates and visitors.” An even more alarming trend, as noted by the NJC, is how the gangs have almost absolute power. The influence goes as far as authorizing entrance into some units.

According to the Maranhão Justice and Penitentiary Administration Secretary, Pedrinhas has a population of approximately 2,500 inmates, when the maximum capacity should be no higher than 1,770.

After the NJC’s report, 60 militarized police officers took charge “indefinitely” in state prisons, in an attempt to handle the violence and overpopulation, particularly in Pedrinhas.

Last week, after police intervention, gang leaders inside Pedrinhas rejected these measures. Through external leaders, they ordered an operation that included setting fire to three buses and the shooting of a police station in Sao Luis — the capital city of Maranhão — during which, a six-year-old girl was killed.

Big Penitentiary Crisis

Delays in the justice system and overcrowding are just two of the biggest problems that the fourth largest inmate population in the world faces. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS), Brazil has 548,003 people in jail, with a total system capacity for 318,739 prisoners. Not even the announced construction program, that would open up  62,000 new spaces this year, could level out the country’s current levels of overcrowding.

Federal Judge Walter Nunes da Silva Júnior, former inspector for the NJC, said that “unfortunately the situation in Maranhão is a description of what happens in all Brazilian state prisons. Inmates rule in prison. The government does not have public policies for the penitentiary system, or the structure to control these inmates.”

The problem goes deeper. Violence is law in these prisons, and was responsible for 282 inmate deaths last year. Agents have lost control over criminal gangs in most of the 1,478 prisons in the country to the point where criminals even own cell phones and guns. This means prisoners and their families are left to be victims, due to the lack of authority.

Paulo Eduardo Martins, however, is skeptical when relating overcrowding to violence.

“To think that violence stems from bad conditions is to think that these cliques started from protests. The origin of this violence is not related to circumstance; today’s conflict is purely economical.”

Martins believes that rising criminal groups in prisons have a fundamental cause: a union between common inmates and political prisoners that is linked to leftist organizations during the late 1970s, at Ilha Grande prison in Rio de Janeiro. This alliance resulted in Brazil’s first drug trafficking organization, Comando Vermelho, in 1979.

“Therefore, the origin of violence is political, and the conflict is economic. Such is the case that the strongest action performed by the biggest criminal faction today, Primer Comando Capital (PCC), happened in São Paulo, a state with an aggressive investment and structural policy for the sector,” concluded Martins.

Translated by Melisa Slep.

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