Brazil Prison Riot Leaves at Least 57 Dead

A prison riot between rival gangs at a detention facility in Altamira, Brazil left at least 57 incarcerated people dead, including at least 16 people who were decapitated, officials said. The deadly fight occurred in one of Brazil’s overcrowded prisons.

The riot allegedly started on July 29 when local gang Comando Classe A stormed one of the prison wings at the Regional Recovery Center in Altamira, in Pará State, controlled by their rival group, Comando Vermelho. Members of Comando Classe A reportedly set fire to part of the prison complex.

“Leaders of the (Comando Classe A) set fire to a cell belonging to one of the prison’s pavilions, where members of the (Comando Vermelho) were located,” Pará prison authorities said in a statement. Jarbas Vasconcelos, superintendent of the Pará prison system, said that the fire spread quickly with incarcerated people held in older container units that were adapted for prison use while another building was under construction, CBS News reported. Vasconcelos told reporters that the fire blocked police from entering the prison for several hours. Gang members held two prison guards hostage during the deadly riot, according to The New York Times. “The prisoners managed to hold a couple of guards hostage, but they were set free because this was about score-settling between two factions,” Vasconcelos said in a statement. Video of the incident showed incarcerated people sitting on the roof of the prison, holding knives as smoke rose from inside, CNN reported. Officials found makeshift knives in the area after extinguishing the fire. Officials managed to gain control of the prison and discovered 41 people had died from suspected smoke inhalation. Another 16 inmates had been decapitated, The New York Times reported.

According to CNN, 10 of the 16 incarcerated men accused of instigating the violence will be moved to federal penitentiaries. At least 46 others will be transferred to other prisons in Pará State. A July report from the National Justice Council, which oversees prison facilities in Brazil, found that the Altamira prison was in “terrible” shape. The government agency said in its public report that the prison was holding over double its 163 inmate capacity, according to The New York Times.

Vasconcelos denied that the prison was overcrowded. “It is not a unit that has a prison overcrowding, we consider overcrowding when it exceeds 210 percent,” he said during a press conference.

“Most of the violence has been in this region, the north and the northeast region, and it’s a place where these gangs are actively fighting each other to achieve some kind of local hegemony or at least carve out space,” Benjamin Lessing, a professor at the University of Chicago and specialist in Brazilian prison gangs, told CNN.

“It doesn’t mean these gangs don’t exist in the rest of Brazil — they do, and there’s violence in other parts of Brazil too related to these gangs,” he added. “But it seems like where the fighting is very intense right now is in this north-northeast region.”

The clash in Pará is just the latest in a series of deadly fights in Brazil’s overcrowded and riot-prone prisons. In May, 55 people were killed in a violent fight between rival drug gangs across several prisons in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. State prison officials said 15 people were killed during visiting hours at the Anísio Jobim penitentiary center in Manaus, The New York Times reported. At least 40 other incarcerated people were killed in violence that grew over the following day in three other prisons in Amazonas. The fights broke out among rival factions within the same drug gang, called the Family of the North.

A similar outbreak in clashes in January 2017 left 56 dead and prompted violence in a number of prisons. More than 120 people ended up dead. Brazil has the third-largest prison population in the world, behind only the United States and China, with about 714,899 people incarcerated. The United States leads with more than two million people incarcerated followed by over 1.6 million in China, according to the World Prison Brief.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.