SAO PAULO: Prison authorities across Brazil should prepare for further violence after a New Year’s Day riot in which nine prisoners were murdered, according to prosecutors, police and prison guards.
The killings at the Colonia Agroindustrial semi-open prison in Goias state in Brazil’s interior came a year after more than 120 died in a string of prison riots and marked the latest grim chapter in a nationwide struggle between rival drug gangs.
“It is a war, and I believe no side wants to appear weak. That is why it is dangerous,” said detective Myrian Vidal, who runs the organised crime division of Goias police.
Maxuell das Neves, president of the state’s prison guards union, said there is a “critical situation” at another prison in Annapolis, Goias. “It could explode at any moment,” he said. Two prison guards were reportedly murdered in the city in recent days.
Das Neves said that before Monday’s riot, he had warned authorities of the threat. Four guards were in control of around 800 prisoners when the violence broke out.
“It was a predictable tragedy,” he said.
The violence began when prisoners linked to the Sao Paulo gang First Capital Command (PCC in Portuguese) broke into a wing controlled by the rival Red Command (Comando Vermelho) one of Rio de Janeiro’s most powerful and feared mafias, das Neves said. Of the 242 prisoners who escaped, 99 are still at large, authorities said.
Brazil has nearly 700,000 prisoners, of which 36 per cent are either on remand or have yet to be charged, according to World Prison Brief.
Many belong to gangs like the PCC and Red Command, which are locked in a fierce dispute to dominate the local drug trade. Violence between the rival groups can be extreme: two of the victims of New Year’s Day’s killings had been decapitated and all the bodies had been burnt.
“Every action has a reaction,” said Lincoln Gakiya, a prosecutor in Sao Paulo state who has specialised in combating the PCC. “The other states need to take care.”
The violence has unnerved in Brazil, where homicide rates have reached record levels, coming exactly a year after the start of a wave of killings that began with a prison riot in the Amazon city of Manaus, when 56 prisoners were butchered. That massacre was blamed on the Family of the North (Familia do Norte, FDN), a Manaus drug gang allied to the Red Command. Dozens more were killed in reprisal attacks at other prisons blamed on the PCC.
The PCC and Red Command ended a long alliance in 2016 and are now bitter enemies. Goias is just one of the Brazilian states where they battle for control of the drug trade, said Detective Vidal.
“They are very strong and organised,” she said.
Police will now investigate if Monday’s killings were a reprisal for the murder last year of a gang leader linked to the PCC at another prison in the same complex, which led to a riot in which five prisoners died. Last year police and prosecutors carried out operations targeting the bribing of prison guards in the state.
The Colonia Agroindustrial is a semi-open prison where many inmates are allowed to work on day release. It has a capacity of around 500 prisoners, and normally holds 1,200 but many had been allowed home for Christmas visits, das Neves said.
“The walls are very fragile and the prisoner on the street can access many things,” das Neves said. “They can get in with arms, knives and anything else.”