Jail riots kill up to 80 as gangs rebel

Prisoners are beheaded and burned as violence from warring drug factions spreads across Rio de Janeiro's prisons.

A state of emergency has been declared in Rio de Janeiro’s prisons, after a blood bath in one jail triggered a wave of rebellions across the city.
Rio’s governor, Rosinha Matheus, made the decision last week after a fortnight of violence in which at least 33 people were killed.

The uprisings began on Saturday, May 29, when 14 prisoners escaped from the Benfica prison in Rio’s North Zone. In the confusion, prisoners belonging to Rio’s largest drug faction, the Comando Vermelho (Red Command), took 26 hostages as a protest against being held with members of a rival group.

A 62-hour slaughter followed, in which 30 members of the rival gang – the Terceiro Comando (Third Command) – were executed. A 42-year-old prison guard was also killed.


Some of the victims were reportedly beheaded or burnt to death after mock trials. A football match is also said to have broken out with the head of one dead prisoner.

“It was horrific,” said Marcelo Freixo, co-ordinator of the Prison Community Council, who was allowed into the jail on Thursday.

“In the gallery there were still blood stains on the walls and body parts strewn around that had obviously been burned.”

Freixo, who was involved in negotiations to quell the rebellion, added: “In 13 years working in human rights I have never seen anything like it.”

It is thought the Comando Vermelho executioners used shotguns looted from the prison armoury.

“The prisoners had easy access to firearms. Many of those killed were killed with weapons which had been stolen from the prison guards,” Freixo said.

The official death toll was this week placed at 30, though prisoners’ relatives believe the actual figure could be as high as 80. Many of the prison’s files were destroyed when the jail’s offices were ransacked. There are no other copies.

“The ground floor was totally destroyed, filing cabinets and wardrobes tipped onto the floor,” said Freixo.

The three-day siege ended when Rio’s governors called in Marcos Pereira da Silva, a well-connected evangelical pastor from the Assembly of God church, whose congregation includes the relatives of some of Rio’s most feared drug lords.

Many believe the order actually came from Marcinho VP, an influential drug trafficker, who is currently held in the Bangu I prison.

As the horrors of the Benfica massacre continued to surface last weekend, violence broke out in another three Rio jails. The most serious was in the women’s custody centre in Magé, 60km from Rio de Janeiro, where one woman was killed.

On Saturday night police stormed the unit, home to 402 women, to free a guard being held hostage. Police say she was wrapped in a mattress and about to be burnt to death by prisoners.

Police initially said they had used rubber bullets in the invasion. However, doctors said this was not the case after they examined the body of one victim who was shot in the head.

Geraldo Moreira, president of the human rights commission of Rio’s Assembly, said: “The walls of one of the cells were full of bullet marks. According to the prisoners they [the police] went in shooting.”

Freixo added: “The police operation was a catastrophe.”

Prison chief Astério Pereira dos Santos denied this, telling journalists last week: “The police action was what you call legally self-defence of a third party … There was no time to wait for Special Forces.”

Visits to the two prisons have been temporarily banned.

Cristiane Barboso Soares, a friend of one woman held in Magé who witnessed the shooting, said: “All we know is that they’re being punished and aren’t allowed to receive any visitors.

“It doesn’t even bear thinking about, what’s going on in there.”

The spotlight fell on Brazil’s prisons in 1992 when 111 inmates died during riots in São Paulo’s Carandiru jail. Only last month 14 convicts were killed in a prison in the Amazon state of Rondônia.

Freixo said: “There’s no investment and no public policy. In Rio, as in the rest of Brazil, the best the authorities can hope for is that there are no rebellions or breakouts.”

In Rio’s jails, problems of corruption, overcrowding and underinvestment are made worse by the presence of warring drug factions.

State prison secretary Astério Pereira dos Santos admitted last week: “The prisons here are all potential gunpowder kegs.”

The jails are dominated by two main drug faction: the Comando Vermelho and the Terceiro Comando, which also control Rio’s estimated 600 favelas, or slums.

In many of Rio’s prisons the two groups are mixed, a combination that often results in bloodshed. During the rebellion in Benfica a placard was slung from one cell window demanding the transfer of enemy prisoners (often referred to as “alemãos” or Germans). It read: “The Comando Vermelho is pure and Christian. We will not accept mixture in any prison unit.”

Authorities last week conceded the need to separate such groups. In the notorious prison complex of Bangu I, where prisoners had threatened to revolt, iron walls are to be built separating the gangs.

Rio’s authorities have been quick to respond, announcing an investment of R$160 million (£28m) in the ailing prison system, including the construction of six new jails.

But many are pointing the finger at governor Rosinha Matheus and prison chief Astério Pereira dos Santos for not anticipating the riots.

One newspaper published a front-page photo of Matheus and her husband, Rio’s security minister Anthony Garotinho, with the names of 19 of the Benfica victims printed on their backs.

Marcelo Freixo also believes Rio’s governors were at fault. “It was a tragedy foretold. We visited the prison on May 11 and prepared a report warning that this would happen, but nothing was done,” he lamented.

The human rights activist says Pereira dos Santos declined to meet with him.

The riots have added to a growing sense of insecurity in an increasingly violent Rio de Janeiro. The city’s failure in May to reach the shortlist to host the 2012 Olympic games was widely blamed on poor security. A month before, 13 people were killed when drug traffickers invaded Rio’s largest favela, Rocinha, in the chic South Zone.

At the time newspaper headlines were quick to compare Rio’s drug wars to the war in Iraq. After weeks of violence in the city’s prisons, parallels are being drawn again.

“We think what’s happening in Abu Ghraib is bad,” said Leonel Kaz, a historian from Rio’s Catholic University. “But the reality is that much worse is going on right under our noses.”