The ongoing prison crisis in Brazil's impoverished northeastern state of Maranhão again made brief headlines this month after newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo released a gruesome video of gang warfare victims inside the violence-plagued and dangerously overcrowded Pedrinhas facility. The video was recorded on Dec. 17, the newspaper reported, describing how "other prisoners pose with the bodies, showing them off like trophies." The footage was turned over to the paper by a prison workers' union to raise awareness of the depth of the crisis. But Maranhão residents had sure been aware of it. There were more than 60 deaths at the facility last year—a higher murder rate than the outside world. Gang control of the prison was so complete that there were reports of inmates' wives being raped in conjugal visits. This finally prompted federal authorities to launch a crackdown over the new year. Military police took over the facility, and found 300 improvised weapons, as well as cell phones by which ranking inmates presumably controlled their outside drug networks. In response to the crackdown, gang leaders called for their supporters on the outside to launch an uprising. That's when the trouble really began…
Presumed supporters of Bonde dos 40, the most powerful faction in the prison, took to the streets, erecting barricades, stopping buses, firing on them, and setting them on fire—sometimes with the passengers still on board. A six-year-old girl was engulfed by the flames in one such incident, and died from her burns; when her grandfather heard the news, he died of a heart attack. Hundreds of people attended her funeral, demanding an end to the gang terror.
Some 550,000 are incarcerated in Brazil (with a total population of not quite 200 million), occupying spaces built for 300,000. Conditions have degenerated with overcrowding—inadequate and uncooked food, inmates left with no place to sleep. The federal government has called a high commission to look into the violence in Maranhão, but as long as these conditions prevail, continued violence seems inevitable. (NPR,Sky News, Folha de Sao Paulo, Paraiba, Jan. 9; Daily Mail, Jan. 8; CNN, Jan. 7; BBC News, Jan. 4)
See our last post on the prison crisis in Latin America.