SAO PAULO – At least 55 prisoners were strangled or stabbed in battles in four government institutions in northwestern Brazil, the authorities said Tuesday. They planned to house inmates in the hope of easing tensions in the overcrowded prison system of the country.
"On the way", Justice Minister Sergio Moro tweeted on Tuesday. "We will also provide places in federal prisons to convict the leaders involved in these massacres."
The murders, which seem to be due to a power struggle within the Northern Family, Brazil's third most powerful gang, began on Sunday at Anísio Jobim Prison Complex in the northwestern Brazilian state of Amazonas. According to the authorities, inmates stabbed rivals with sharp toothbrushes and strangled them in front of relatives who visited them.
On Monday, 40 more inmates were killed in three other state prisons in the Amazon. The death toll was so high that corpses were transported to other states for autopsy on refrigerated meat trucks.
Local officials, concerned by the spread of the clashes, called on the authorities to convict gang leaders into federal prisons.
Brazil's prisons are virtually run by inmates and fighting between and within gangs often leads to deadly results. 120 inmates were killed in January 2017 in prisons in various states.
The Amazon prosecutor called on the government to take control of the prisons when necessary with military force.
Amazonian governor Wilson Lima told the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper that "the system is under control" but "it is almost impossible to prevent such situations".
Brazil has the third largest prison population in the world. Almost 800,000 inmates live in facilities that can accommodate half of this number.
The Brazilian government has long put gang leaders in prisons far from their homes to weaken the groups. But politics has failed by helping neighborhood gangs to develop a national reach. The country's prisons have become initiation centers where new inmates are divided into gangs as they enter.
While long-established gangs clash with newcomers, leaders use force to keep members in line.
"It is intended to send a message," said Rob Muggah, director of the Think Tank Igarape Institute in Rio de Janeiro. "Organized crime control depends on exercising control outside the prison gates in the neighborhood where many prisoners are from."
President Jair Bolsonaro, who campaigned last year for promises to fight the Brazilian violence, pledged this "stuff jail cells with criminals."
"I'd rather have a prison cell full of criminals than a cemetery full of innocent people," he said. "We will build more if necessary."
But successive governments promising to build more prisons could not keep up with the ballooning inmate population. There has been room for more than 8,650 inmates since the beginning of 2018, but the number of new inmates increased by more than 17,800 over the same period, according to the Igarape Institute.
Prisons are so crowded that some inmates sleep while standing and hands are tied to the bars so they do not fall.
"It underlines the fact that this is a problem that requires not only the construction of more prisons or the arrest of more people, but a rethinking of reform approaches."