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Violent Clashes Break Out At 4 Prisons In Northern Brazil


In Brazil, at least 55 prison inmates are dead - strangled or stabbed after fights broke out in four different prisons over the weekend. Officials blame gang violence and say they're transferring some of these inmates to other prisons. Reporter Catherine Osborn is on the line from Rio.

Good morning, Catherine.


KING: So what is going on with these gangs in Brazilian prisons? This is a lot of people dead.

OSBORN: Yeah. Many drug gangs that operate outside of jails in Brazil in activities like drug trafficking and extortion operate and recruit from inside of the jails. And they're so powerful inside the prisons that, right after arriving, people join the gangs to get some small amount of protection. Prisons have even earned the nickname schools of crime in Brazil.

KING: Wow.

OSBORN: Yeah, and this appears to be linked to a dispute inside one of those gangs.

KING: This happened in four different prisons but almost simultaneously. Was it coordinated?

OSBORN: This happened in Manaus. It's a city in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, and it's a main outpost for commerce, including drug trafficking. And it appears that the prison fight that broke out on Sunday was between two factions inside the same gang. And then the 40 dead bodies that were found by the next day were related to the same dispute. So that dispute was inside the gang Familia do Norte - Family of the North - which controls a main cocaine route through the Amazon's rivers.

KING: All right. So this is obviously very complex if you've got not just gangs fighting each other but factions within gangs fighting each other. The government's response is to say it's going to transfer some of these guys to other prisons. Is that likely to help?

OSBORN: What the government says they're doing is addressing the problem with intelligence, which means being aware of rifts like this inside the gangs before they become violent. Fifty-five dead shows that that strategy failed here. And the governor says he's not renewing the contract of the private company that runs these prisons. Now they are taking these transfer measures. You know, they're using the intelligence that they have to transfer some gang leaders to a maximum security prison and then moving 200 other inmates who they say have received death threats. And that's their measures right now. The city is also under alert. There are police on the streets making sure this doesn't spill out into gun violence on the streets. And, you know, we'll see over the next few days whether that can contain even more possible violence.

KING: Interesting that you say it's a private company that is running these prisons. Given that, why are these facilities so out of control? These are profit-making enterprises.

OSBORN: Watchdog groups have been sending out red flags about prison overcrowding in Brazil for many years now, and so it really is a political will issue. Many experts, after the tragedy of the past few days - including a U.N. spokesperson yesterday - say that to really address this problem, you have to reduce overcrowding. And countrywide, prisons are around 70% over capacity and around 137% in this state alone.

KING: Just quickly - Brazil's new president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a guy who talks tough on crime. Has he said anything about this?

OSBORN: He didn't issue a statement about it. When asked about it, his spokesperson said he was saddened. But in the past, he has taken a strong stance on incarceration. He thinks juvenile convicts should be sent to these adult prisons, which experts say would worsen overcrowding and expose young people even earlier to these schools of crime.

KING: Reporter Catherine Osborn from Brazil.

Thanks so much, Catherine.

OSBORN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.