Brazil Prison Murders Highlight Rising Violence in Northern States

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A video showing the decapitated bodies of three prisoners in a jail in northeastern Brazil paints a gruesome picture of the country’s out-of-control prisons and draws attention to how crime and violence have been migrating to Brazil’s historically safer states.

The film, published in Folha, depicts prisoners standing around the mutilated bodies of the dead men (see video below). According to officials, the three victims were the result of an internal conflict in a prison gang in the Pedrinhas prison in São Luis, in the state of Maranhao.

The murders come on the heels of a National Justice Council (CNJ) report that found rivalries between prison factions from São Luis and those from other parts of the state were a major problem in the Pedrinhas prison. The CNJ also found that criminal gangs controlled many of the state’s facilities, reported Human Rights Watch (HRW).

According to O Estado, Maranhao’s prisons are highly overpopulated, with 1.9 prisoners for every space available. The CNJ reported 60 inmates were killed in 2013.

InSight Crime Analysis

Brazil’s overcrowded prisons — which hold the third highest prison population in the world — are hotbeds for violence, mass breakouts and criminal activity. They have also played a critical role in the development of Brazilian organized crime, as what are now powerful transnational gangs the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) and the First Capital Command (PCC) were born in the prisons of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo respectively.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of PCC

Whereas organized crime, prison gangs and endemic violence were once primarily to be found in São Paulo, Rio and other main urban areas, in recent years there has been something of a migration, with a rise in homicides, and particularly gun deaths, in states in northeastern Brazil. Meanwhile, murders have fallen in São Paulo and Rio. Maranhao is a prime example of this trend, with O Estado reporting that homicides rose 460 percent in 13 years in the São Luis metropolitan area, with 807 deaths in 2013. 

There is also evidence to suggest the region’s prison gangs may be developing along similar lines to groups such as the PCC and Red Command and expanding their influence beyond the prison walls. Mirroring the actions of the PCC, Pedrinhas prison gangs recently orchestrated attacks on buses and police stations, which left a young girl dead, in retaliation for security operations inside the prison. 

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