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Inmates strangled to death in Brazil prison gang clashes

Sandro Pereira, AFP | Family members of inmates are pictured praying in front of the Puraquequara Prison facility at Bela Vista community, Puraquequara neighborhood at the city of Manaus, Amazonas state on May 27, 2019.

Fifty-five inmates were killed at different prisons in Brazil's northern Amazonas state Sunday and Monday over an apparent gang dispute, authorities reported, in a latest wave of violence to rock the country's overpopulated prison system.

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Most of the victims appeared to have been killed by “asphyxiation”, the Amazonas state government said in a statement.

At least 40 of the victims were killed in four jails on Monday, a day after officials announced that 15 others had been murdered in one of the detention centres. Officials had initially put the number of dead at 42, before revising it to 40.

At least 25 of the dead were found in the Antonio Trindade Penal Institute near Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, where all four prisons are located.

The killings across the city's prisons recalled early 2017 when more than 120 inmates died at the hands of other prisoners during several weeks of fighting among rival crime gang members at prisons in northern states.

Many of those victims had their heads cut off or their hearts and intestines ripped out.

On Sunday, 15 inmates were killed during a riot at Manaus' Anisio Jobim Prison Complex, where 56 prisoners died in the violence two years earlier.

Drug-trafficking

No guns or knives were used in the killings, which prison officials said appeared to have been sparked by a "rift between prisoners who belonged to the same criminal group and were involved in drug trafficking in the state".

The fighting began before noon Sunday, local authorities said, and security reinforcements were rushed in and managed to regain control within 45 minutes.

Brazil's justice and public security ministry said it was sending a federal task force to help local officials handle the situation.

"I just spoke with (Justice) Minister Sergio Moro, who is already sending a prison intervention team to the State of Amazonas, so that he can help us in this moment of crisis and a problem that is national: the problem of prisons," Amazonas state Gov. Wilson Lima said.

An investigation launched into Sunday's mass killing at the Anisio Jobim Penal Complex, in which some of the prisoners were stabbed with sharpened toothbrushes during visiting hours, has been widened to include Monday's deaths.

"The fact that the killings were coordinated across four separate prisons... suggests that this was a settling of scores," Robert Muggah, research director at the Igarape Institute think tank in Rio de Janeiro, told AFP.

The latest violence in Amazonas, one of Brazil's most violent states, was "almost guaranteed to inspire retribution inside and outside the prison walls".

Several drug-trafficking and other criminal gangs in Brazil run much of their day-to-day business from prisons, where they often have wide sway.

The 2017 slayings were largely gang-related, prompting authorities to increase efforts to separate factions and frequently transfer prisoners.

‘Appalling conditions’

Outbreaks of deadly violence are a recurring problem in Brazil's jails due to the lack of structural changes, experts said.

"Prisons continue to be places of serious violations of human rights," said Juliana Melo, a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte. "The conditions are appalling, with a majority of prisoners poor, black, badly schooled and marginalized," he added.

Brazil has the world's third largest prison population after the United States and China, with 726,712 inmates as of June 2016, according to official statistics. The population is double the capacity of the nation's jails, which in the same year was estimated to be 368,049 inmates.

The federal government had been expected to add another 115,000 inmates by the end of 2018, Human Rights Watch said in a recent report.

Along with severe overcrowding and gang violence, riots and breakout attempts in Brazil's prisons are not uncommon.

"Deaths in Brazil's prison system are shamefully recurrent," said Julita Lemgruber, a former director of Rio de Janeiro's penitentiary system and professor at Candido Mendes University.

"They are recurrent because those who die are originally from the poorest sections of the population and are people who are not clear about their rights."

While Muggah said there was no quick fix available for the system, the government needed to start by "drastically" reducing the number of pretrial detainees who currently make up 40 percent of the prison population.

"Rather than imposing harsher sentencing laws and building new prisons, the public authorities need to enforce existing legislation -- including ensuring suspects are provided with hearings within 24 hours of their arrest," he said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)

 

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