In The Media

The Red Ink Behind Brazil's Bloody Prison Massacre

by Mac Margolis (feat. Robert Muggah)

January 5, 2017

Even by Brazilian standards, the New Year's savagery that befell the Compaj maximum security prison in Manaus, in the Amazon region -- at least 60 inmates murdered, many of them beheaded, dismembered and incinerated in a 17-hour rampage starting Jan. 1 -- was shocking.

Yet what's more striking about the riot is that it apparently had little to do with the horrific conditions that traditionally fuel prison uprisings. Although the prison was as ghastly as any in Brazil -- 1,229 inmates squeezed into cells built for 454 -- in one fundamental way its horrors suited certain inmates just fine: Repeated funding cuts have helped to create a sort of savage system of jail-yard laissez faire, the perfect ecosystem for organized crime. In many ways, what happened this weekend was just a criminal rivalry run amok.

The trouble began when one criminal band with local roots attacked an encroaching rival gang from Sao Paulo. A longstanding non-aggression pact between the country's two competing drug syndicates had kept a lid on the worst outbreaks for a time. The truce fell apart over control of key retail markets in urban slums and for the rising stakes in cocaine flowing into the Amazon region from Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela. In a way, the violence also may be a perverse reflection of Brazil's success in capturing top drug felons, who went on to turn prisons into criminal brain trusts. Apparently that was the case at Compaj, a privately run penitentiary, where lax standards allegedly allowed prisoners the run of cellblocks, and crime bosses perks like televisions, minibars, booze and drugs.

Deepening recession, which has forced local governments to slash security budgets (35 percent in Rio de Janeiro, 10 percent in Minas Gerais), plus the chaos in the overcrowded and chronically understaffed prisons, have made such turf wars even harder to stop. Only one in three prisons have metal detectors and equipment to block mobile phone signals. "Walk through the prison gates, and you get the feeling you're no longer in Brazil," said Claudio Beato, a longtime Brazilian crime scholar and newly appointed public safety secretary of Belo Horizonte, a regional capital.

Brazil keeps 622,000 inmates, the world's fourth-largest prison population, but has room for little more than half that number. Its incarceration rate more than doubled between 2004 and 2014. Such conditions have kept cellblocks in shivs and shanks for decades; 24 of Brazil's 27 states have suffered deadly uprisings in the last decade. Those inmates who survive jail-yard rage still face a gang of pathogens: Prisoners are 28 times more likely to catch tuberculosis than Brazilians at large and twice as susceptible to HIV infection.

That dismal record has won Brazil reprimands from the United Nations and human rights champions. What it hasn't done is hasten reform or investment in a better correctional system. Indeed, Brazil's disgraceful prisons draw at best a passing shudder until they explode into headlines. "Prisons are a problem the rest of us would rather pretend don't exist," Beato told me.

This blind spot is more than just callous. "The public's tolerance of the status quo is short-sighted. Brazil's prison wars routinely spill on to the street," said Robert Muggah, who studies global public safety for the Igarape Institute in Rio. He noted the 2006 prison mutiny, in which imprisoned bosses of the ascendant Sao Paulo drug gang, First Capital Command, ordered attacks on police and prison guards. "These latest events in Manaus will surely bring about retribution," Muggah added.

The rage in Manaus has kicked Brazilian authorities into high alert. Supreme Court President Carmen Lucia has called for a thorough prison census, while the Justice Minister has promised to accelerate yet another national security plan. Getting security spending priorities right would help. In 2015, the Supreme Court ordered the government to unfreeze funds earmarked for the National Penitentiary Fund. President Michel Temer answered last month with a sleight of hand -- an executive order to garnish 30 percent of prison spending, diverting it instead to the generic rubric of national security. That may be a worthy cause in itself, perhaps, but it's not going to help Brazil fix its blackest holes.

More broadly, the circumstances that led up to last weekend's carnage reflect a broader and more familiar dysfunction -- national institutions that have been enfeebled by neglect and outsourced to enterprising opportunists and interest groups, who operate best in the shadows. It's just the kind of malaise that Brazilians no longer appeared willing to condone and that since 2013 has sent waves of protestors to the streets. Two and a half years into Latin America's biggest corruption crackdown, which has seen more than 100 moguls and politicians jailed for graft, finally a whiff of justice and civic decency seemed to have reinvigorated a country accustomed to neither. But seen from Manaus, the claim that "institutions are working" seems like much more of a trope than a done deal.

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