Prison Fighting Leaves at Least 55 Dead in Northern Brazil
RIO DE JANEIRO — Violent clashes among rival drug factions in several prisons in the northern Brazilian state of Amazonas have killed at least 55 people, corrections officials said on Monday.
The outbreak of violence, which began on Sunday, is the latest in a state where drug gangs have waged a vicious battle for supremacy as smuggling routes that run along northern Brazil have become increasingly profitable.
The bloodshed comes as the Brazilian government is taking steps to assert greater control of the country’s chronically overcrowded and underfunded prisons, where drug kingpins have long managed to run their trade from behind bars with relative ease.
The first killings occurred Sunday during visiting hours at the Anísio Jobim penitentiary center in Manaus, the state capital, where 15 inmates were slain, according to state prison officials. Some were reported to have been asphyxiated, the officials said, and others were stabbed with sharpened toothbrushes.
The prison has been notoriously violent: In January 2017, clashes there left 56 inmates dead and sparked a wave of violence that rippled across state lines, resulting eventually in more than 120 deaths.
After the killings on Sunday, the outbreak of violence expanded on Monday to at least three other prisons in Amazonas, where at least 40 inmates were killed.
Marcos Vinicius, the head of the state corrections system, told reporters that the violence had been sparked by “infighting among inmates.” He said no prison guards had been harmed or taken hostage. Officials did not disclose a motive for the attacks.
Seeking to contain the outbreak, the federal Justice Ministry said Monday that it was dispatching a task force to Amazonas to back up local officials. The governor of Amazonas, Wilson Lima, said in a statement that he hoped the federal reinforcements “will help us in this time of crisis to confront a problem that is a national one: the problems in our prisons.”
Brazil’s prison population has ballooned over the past decade from roughly 451,000 in 2008 to an estimated 841,000 last year, according to data collected by Brazilian Senate staff. The nation’s prisons are equipped to hold only about 400,000 people.
The prison population is likely to continue growing if Brazilian lawmakers pass crime bills currently before them and supported by Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, that would increase penalties for certain crimes.