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Riot Prompts Questions: Is Brazil In Control Of Its Prisons?


In Brazil, funerals are being held for the men who died in the worst prison riot in that country for a quarter century. Fifty-six prisoners were killed this weekend in a penitentiary in the northern city of Manaus. Brazil has more than 600,000 people behind bars, and this incident is raising questions over whether the government is losing control of the penal system.

NPR's Philip Reeves is in Manaus, and he sent this report.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The body of a young man lies beneath a white shroud in an open coffin. It's in a yard in a back street. Members of the family of the man, who's called Felipe, sit a few feet away on white plastic chairs. They're grieving together and sharing their anger. They want to know why he was shot and decapitated while doing time in what was supposed to be a highly secure prison.


REEVES: Brazil's prison system is useless, they say.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: One shows a cell phone picture of young men gleefully brandishing guns and knives. This was purportedly taken inside the prison in which Felipe died, before the start of Brazil's deadliest prison riots in decades. These riots were triggered by a turf war between rival drug gangs battling for supremacy within the prison system. Most of the dead are believed to belong to Brazil's most powerful gang, the so-called First Capital Command. There are fears this gang will now seek revenge and many more lives will be lost.

The riots happened in the Anisio Jobim Penitentiary in Manaus, a city in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Deadly uprisings often break out in Brazil's overcrowded prisons in its big cities. But Manaus is in the jungle and, with less than 3 million residents, is fairly small by Brazilian standards. The city's shocked by what's happened says Celso Freitas.

CELSO FREITAS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "No one imagined it could happen here," he says. Freitas is a church volunteer. He's come to stand outside the city morgue to offer support to families who are here identifying their dead or desperately searching for information. They include Lailsa, who's asked for her full name to be withheld for fear of gangland reprisals. She's been told her son is missing. He's not listed as dead nor as one of the many dozens of prisoners who escaped during the mayhem. Lailsa fears the worst...

LAILSA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...And accuses the authorities of being negligent in their handling of this disaster.

Those authorities now face many questions about how this bloodbath was allowed to happen. Rights activists say government has lost control of prisons to drug gangs who use inmates as foot soldiers. Why, in the age of security cameras and X-ray machines, were there so many weapons inside the prison?

LUIS CARLOS VALOIS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Luis Carlos Valois is a criminal judge in Manaus. He says weapons get in because prison staff are corrupt. During the riots, Valois was drafted in to negotiate with prisoners who briefly held a group of staff as hostages. The judge says Brazil's gangs compete over the drugs trade in the streets but explains this prison killing spree on one overwhelming factor.

VALOIS: Hate, hate.


VALOIS: Just hate.

REEVES: In a system that offers no hope to a multitude of young men, hatred is all that's left.

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