Brazil Authorities Caught in Prison System’s Vicious Cycle

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The current violent crisis inside Brazil’s penitentiary system is a perfect illustration of why authorities ignore — or militarize — prisons at their own peril.

The latest news from Brazil is dire. Folha de Sao Paulo is reporting that 136 bodies have been counted since the prison battles began on January 4. The government is readying the military to enter the most volatile jails, but the fighting seems to have only begun. 

The government says up to 1,000 military personnel will enter the jails to search for contraband items such as weapons and cellular phones, Terra reported.

The governor of the hard-hit state of Rio Grande do Norte has also requested the federal government dispatch troops to the streets of the city of Natal following a series of violent incidents, which he seemed to believe were related to the unrest in the prison system, Folha de Sao Paulo said.

It’s this exact mixture of crime and politics that has made the Red Command and its now rival, the First Capital Command, so potent and their fight inside the prisons so dangerous.

The possible militarization of the conflict holds particular irony for those who know the history of the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), one of the two major groups at the heart of the current fighting. The Red Command began in the 1970s, as crime scholar Benjamin Lessing explained in the Washington Post recently, when prisons of the then-military dictatorship mixed common criminals and political dissidents.

The result was a criminal organization that understood that power was about more than money or weapons. It instead relied on social and political capital, a relatively easy thing to accumulate in Latin America’s chronically dysfunctional and abusive prison system.

It’s this exact mixture of crime and politics that has made the Red Command and its now rival, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), so potent and their fight inside the prisons so dangerous.

But while this battle amongst criminal titans is certainly the most salient problem in Brazil’s underworld right now, there are deeper issues, both in Brazil and across Latin America, that foster these groups and the bloody chaos that often surrounds them, as we chronicled in the first of our series of reports on how prisons became a primary incubator of organized crime in the region.

SEE ALSO: The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

To begin with, governments have sought to deal with crime by employing “Mano Dura,” or “Iron Fist,” policies as it relates to criminal activities such as drug peddling, drug consumption or gang-related activities. Some of the laws have also sought to criminalize the mere appearance of association with gangs. These policies are often targeted at poor, marginalized communities and disproportionately affect these areas.

The result has been a boom in the jail population of the region’s poorest and most disadvantaged populations. Brazil’s prison system went from 173,000 in 1995, to over 600,000 today. Other countries that we researched — like El Salvador and Venezuela — went through similar spikes.

Many of these prisoners are in pretrial detention, meaning they have not been sentenced with any crime, and spend years waiting for the judicial wheels to turn. While they wait, they are subject to horrible abuse, unless they become affiliated with a criminal organization that will protect them.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Prisons

The prison infrastructure has not kept pace with this rise in prisoners. In some places, inmates literally live on top of one another in holding cells for months or even years at a time. The food is inadequate or inedible. Sanitary and health conditions are deplorable, and abuse by security guards common.  

The conditions inside the jails make them ripe for exploitation by criminal groups. Both the PCC and the Red Command are what we call an Inside/Outside Prison Gang because they have criminal activities that happen inside and outside of the jails.

Like the Red Command, the PCC was also forged inside the prison system. In fact, they were longtime allies. Both of them understood that organizing around issues such as security and better conditions inside the prisons was the quickest route to power over the criminal economy inside the jails.

The government exacerbated this problem by transferring PCC members to prisons all over the country and allowing for repression of prisoners to become a substitute for rehabilitation. Rather than weakening the criminal organizations, however, this allowed them to spread their ideology and, soon enough, their membership.

That power on the inside eventually made its way to the outside, where the two groups have established control over petty drug dealing in the poor and marginalized populations, leading to repression in these areas and starting the cycle all over again.

As Brazil’s internal market for drugs has grown, so has the power — and the potential for conflict — of these two organizations. The PCC, which began under the tutelage of the Red Command, is the more formidable of the two. It now operates in Paraguay and in Bolivia, and may be seeking inroads in Colombia as the country’s largest rebel group begins its demobilization.

But, as we found during our year-long investigation into the jails, at the heart of the issue is the combination of hardline policies on the outside and chronic neglect and abuse of the prisoners on the inside.

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