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In Northern Brazil, Prison Riot Leaves Dozens Of Inmates Dead


What triggered a kind of battle inside a prison in Brazil? NPR's Philip Reeves reports on a gang war behind bars that left 57 inmates dead.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: It's easy to get hardened to deadly violence in Brazil. Yesterday's incident, though, stands out. It happened in a prison in Altamira, a city on the Amazon River basin. Brazil has one of the world's largest prison populations, along with the U.S., China and Russia. Parts of its penal system are severely overcrowded. Prisons can be rife with disease. Yet officials say the violence in Altamira was not an uprising against the system but the result of a war between two criminal organizations. One's a relatively small north Brazilian gang called Command Class A. The other is the Red Command, a powerful gang from Rio de Janeiro that's been spreading into the Amazon in an effort to take control of its lucrative cocaine smuggling routes.

Prisoners were getting ready for breakfast when the trouble started. The prison authorities say some people from Command Class A set fire to a cell containing Red Command gangsters. The fire spread. Smoke from burning mattresses is thought to have killed many of the victims. For hours, police and guards couldn't access the area. When the authorities eventually got in, they found 16 decapitated bodies. Gruesome videos soon began circulating on social media purporting to show gangsters celebrating this bloodletting in an attempt to intimidate their criminal rivals. Events like this are not uncommon in Brazil's prisons. During 2017, more than 120 inmates died in a wave of gang-related violence in northern Brazil. Trouble erupted again this May. Fifty-five people in several prisons were killed.

Yesterday's bloodbath throws a spotlight once again on a penal system in which gangs sometimes control entire cellblocks and have easy access to weapons, drugs and cellphones. That same spotlight's also falling uncomfortably on the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, who this year arrived in office promising to bring Brazil's crime epidemic and rampant gangs under control.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.