Gang riot at Brazilian prison leaves at least 57 dead

Tragedy unfolded at a prison in northeastern Brazil on Monday as a clash between rival gangs developed into a full-fledged riot that left at least 57 people dead, nearly 20 of whom were decapitated with machetes.

The Washington Post reports that it took upwards of five hours for authorities to regain control of the situation at the prison after one gang infiltrated a part of the facility controlled by rivals and the confrontation erupted in violence and flames.

Horrific violence

Aside from the inmates who were decapitated in the violence, most of the other victims suffocated to death in the thick, black smoke that resulted when part of the prison was set ablaze. Two prison officials were also taken captive by inmates at the start of the riot, but were eventually released without having suffered any harm.

The riot at the Altamira prison in Pará state came just a few months after a similar prison riot in northwestern Brazil that left dozens of inmates dead from strangulation or stabbing, with some of those murders occurring in front of visiting family members.

Gangs in control

Brazil has long been the subject of criticism with regard to its prison system, as most such facilities are significantly overcrowded, with inmates living in squalid conditions. At Altamira prison, where conditions were recently described as “terrible,” there were reportedly 343 inmates housed in the facility designed to accommodate only 163.

Making matters worse, most of the prisons at the state and local level are for all intents and purposes managed by incarcerated gang lords instead of the police or local authorities.

Nationwide, there are reportedly some 800,000 inmates serving time in prison, and that number is unlikely to be reduced anytime soon as President Jair Bolsonaro and other politicians have vowed to crack down on the rampant crime across the country and pack the prisons beyond capacity, rather than allow criminals to continue to have free range on the streets.

“I’d rather a prison cell full of criminals than a cemetery full of innocent people,” Bolsanaro had said, according to the Post. “We will build more if necessary.”

Federal incarceration required

Unfortunately, there is little funding available to build more local and state-level prisons at the moment, so one temporary solution that has been proposed to combat the growing turf war between rival gangs over control of the prisons is to segregate gang lords into the more secure federal prisons.

“Immediately, we will open spaces in federal prisons to isolate those responsible for the barbarity,” Justice Minister Sérgio Moro said on Monday. “In my opinion, they should stay in federal prisons forever.”

That sentiment was echoed by the governor of Pará state, Helder Barbalho, who pledged on Monday, “The state government will identify the leaders of the two factions involved in the confrontation so that we can put them in federal prisons.”

Hopefully, Brazil’s government can get a handle on the prison overcrowding problem and tamp down the rivalries between gangs that seem constantly on the verge of violence, if only to prevent further deadly riots like this one in the future.

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