Brazil Has Become a Gangland

With the country’s politics plagued by scandal and corruption, Brazil’s gangs are fighting a deadly and brazen turf war — inside and out of the broken prison system.

Warning: Some readers may find the following images disturbing.

On April 24, one of Brazil’s largest cartels, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), orchestrated a sophisticated heist across the Paraguayan border, dispatching dozens of gangsters equipped with automatic weapons, grenades, anti-aircraft guns, security vans, and speedboats to attack the local police headquarters as a diversion, then rob $8 million from the vault of a private security firm. It was the sort of military-type operation that Brazilian and Colombian security officials were hoping to prevent back in January, when they convened in Manaus — the capital of Amazonas, Brazil’s sprawling northwestern state — to share intelligence in light of evidence that the PCC was diligently recruiting members of the recently disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the alumni of which are revered for their tactical experience and heavy-weapons expertise. The PCC’s “heist of the century,” as the local media called it, revealed a new level of complexity in South America’s cross-border drug wars, the latest evidence that a public security crisis was developing beneath the slow burn of Brazil’s panoramic political corruption investigation and prolonged recession. Nowhere is that crisis more apparent than in the country’s prisons, where it has been taking shape for years. 

Smoke turned to fire in the country’s prisons during the first two weeks of 2017, when at least 130 detainees were massacred by fellow inmates. The spate of prison rebellions began on New Year’s Day in Manaus, a city on the banks of the Amazon, where homegrown syndicate Familia do Norte (FDN) controls one of the world’s most vital arteries for cocaine trafficking — and the region’s chronically overcrowded prison system. On the first morning of 2017, more than 184 pretrial detainees escaped the Instituto Penal Antônio Trindade (IPAT), one of three private prisons nested on a remote road north of the city. The syndicate coordinated the mass jailbreak to divert attention from a higher-security facility up the road, where fellow FDN inmates held guards hostage for more than 17 hours while gang members executed dozens of their rivals, sharing the images on social media as military police helicopters circled overhead. One local news network broadcasted cell-phone video of prisoners shuffling among a pile of decapitated bodies, some of which they threw over the prison walls.

“The scene inside the prison is terrible,” said Pedro Florêncio, the state secretary of prisons, at a news conference the following day. “It’s shocking to see how brutal a person can be.”

Florêncio — who was dismissed from his post by Amazonas State Gov. José Melo on Jan. 13 as the crisis intensified — at first characterized the rebellion as an impromptu gang fight between the Amazon’s FDN and the rival PCC, Brazil’s most highly structured cartel that was born in the prisons of São Paulo. By the end of the week it was evident that the FDN attack was a proxy battle between warring drug syndicates elsewhere in Brazil, organized in coordination with Rio de Janeiro’s Comando Vermelho, which broke off its fragile alliance with the PCC in mid-2016. In the aftermath, conflict among cartels has spread to other prisons, resulting in the massacre of 33 inmates in nearby Roraima state the same week in an apparent PCC reprisal, and the death of 26 inmates during a Jan. 14 riot in Rio Grande do Norte. The attacks have drawn northern Brazil deeper into an escalating national war in the deadliest episode of prison violence since 111 prisoners were killed — 102 by military police — during the notorious Cirandiru riot in São Paulo in 1992.

Violent crime in Brazil is endemic, fueled by crushing income inequality, military police who treat citizens like enemy combatants, and narco-corruption that leaches money and distorts justice at every level of the system. The latest prison crisis focuses the heat of those social ills through the magnifying glass of the nation’s long-neglected prisons, where Brazil’s most pressing problems have been left to fester since the era of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. Increased prosperity since then has done little to reduce the homicide rate; in 2012, according to a U.N. report, Brazil’s 64,000 homicides rivaled the death toll of the Syrian civil war. Since 2000, the country’s prison population has doubled to become the fourth largest on the planet, with more than 622,000 detainees in a system designed to hold 371,000. While Brazil’s incarceration rate is less than half the U.S. rate, according to data from the World Prison Brief, 36 percent of inmates are pretrial detainees, compared with 21 percent in the United States. As a consequence, the system groans along at 157 percent capacity, compared with 102 percent for the United States, which itself is no model for sustainable incarceration practices.

While Brazil’s embattled President Michel Temer initially dismissed the first riot in Manaus as “a dreadful accident,” the bloody aftershocks spurred his administration to accelerate the release of its national public security plan, which focuses on three prongs: reducing homicides and violence against women, modernizing the prison system, and combating international organized crime. Soon after, intelligence officials from across the country met with the minister of justice in Brasilia to discuss coordination efforts. Temer has proposed building 30 new prisons, including prefabricated facilities that can be operational within a year. Yet while he has assured state governments that federal forces will support prison security operations — and some federal funding has been unlocked — there is no constitutional guarantee of federal support to states for public-security efforts. At a time when unemployment is sky high and new austerity measures are sparking nationwide strikes by teachers, police, and other public workers, the well-being of prisoners has taken a back seat to the economic woes of everyday Brazilians, opening the door for cartels like the FDN and PCC to consolidate their power.

Police officers collect the bodies of inmates killed during prison riots in Manaus, Brazil, on January 2, 2017. (Photo credit: MARCIO SILVA/AFP/Getty Images)

The inmates are running the asylum

“This is a problem in every Brazilian state,” Florêncio, the secretary of prisons, said when I interviewed him in April 2016 while investigating the beheading of another prisoner at IPAT. “Criminal organizations dominate the prisons. The police fight criminals, catch them, and incarcerate them, but that’s easy. Once they are inside, the bosses can create the same environment they had on the street. They have access to women, they have access to drugs, they have access to cell phones to send commands back to the city,” he said. “That’s how they transform their cells into offices of crime.”

The overstrained prison system is plagued by violence, contraband, and escape attempts, magnified by corruption at every level. In January 2016, investigators from the National Secretary of Human Rights visited four prison units in Manaus, observing that inmates are “basically self-governing” in an atmosphere ripe for rebellion. The government watchdogs warned of broken infrastructure and severe crowding, compounded by low morale and high turnover among prison staff. They discovered inmates — in particular those from weaker criminal factions — crowded into makeshift spaces, ostensibly to be kept safe from their enemies. Armed with handmade weapons capable of breaking walls and cutting bars, and enabled by a state all too willing to defer to private prison management, the FDN was free to torture and kill rivals — arguably with more liberty than they would have on the street.

During one visit to IPAT in May 2016, the private prison management company Umanizzare went to great lengths to demonstrate the integrity of their operations, but the show tour only served to highlight the contrast between its marketing efforts and the grim realities within the walls of their prisons. Operations manager Wilson Ramos and seven other staff members walked me through their elaborate, four-stage security inspection, which was clearly no match for good, old-fashioned looking the other way. More than 2,300 illicit objects, including knives, firearms, tools, narcotics, and precision scales, were seized in Manaus prisons in 2016 — and that’s just what was caught. The same security review also discovered nine tunnels leading under state prisons, channels for escape and contraband like the knives and pistols used in the New Year’s Day rebellion.

Like prison administrators the world over, Florêncio lamented the lack of sheer physical space to house inmates and provide social services. Yet building more prisons enriches private prison operators without addressing the key underlying causes: A nightmarishly tangled judicial system with a chronic shortage of public defenders. A system overwhelmed by offenders in prison for drug-related charges, many of them nonviolent. A system staffed by underresourced, overworked, poorly paid employees — prone to low morale and chronic turnover, susceptible to bribes and intimidation.

Military police officers track escaped inmates after prison riots in Brazil on January 2, 2017. (Photo credit: MARCIO SILVA/AFP/Getty Images)

Worst practices

Brazilian officials are eager to point out that the United States faces many of the same problems, but Brazil can stand to learn from the errors of the world’s leader in mass incarceration before it doubles down on drug enforcement and prison expansion. In the United States, expanding the prison system strengthened prison gangs, rather than weakened them, and the states with the largest prison systems — California and Texas — have a disproportionately large presence of organized gangs that control drugs and crime beyond the prison walls. In the United States, the free-market impulse to privatize incarceration has resulted in lax oversight and egregious human rights violations. Although only 3 percent of Brazilian prisons are private, almost 40 percent are privately run in Amazonas, where the prison population has doubled since 2010 in response to a crackdown on drug trafficking.

Brazil’s private prison-management lobby is eager for the corrections system to emulate the United States in its effort to modernize failing prisons, but as local, state, and federal governments reel from the findings of sprawling, ongoing corruption investigations, the country needs desperately to crack down on big prison contracts that have little oversight. The family-owned Pamas consortium — a joint venture between private prison companies LFG and Umanizzare, which allegedly donated campaign funds to Gov. José Melo in 2014 — controls the private prisons of Amazonas. Those contracts are under investigation for possible fraud and price gouging, though the companies defend their pricing on the basis that their operations costs are higher than average in the remote region, and the governor claims that the state awarded the contracts through legal means.

The state and Umanizzare would have the public believe that inmates are acquiring new skills at IPAT’s “Nuclear Learning Center,” designed to train 30 students to become either firefighters or plumbers once they leave. But on the day of my visit, the facility was devoid of books or desks. Nobody could seem to find the keys to the classrooms. At the exit of the empty room, a handwritten sign read: Don’t just throw your papers on the floor.

“We have to transform these people into good citizens, to reeducate them, to reintegrate them to society, to return them better than when they entered,” Florêncio said, “but that vision is almost utopian.” Asked to identify the resources he needs most, he answered without hesitation: “Today the most important priority is food, absolutely.”

During a tour of the IPAT kitchen, the Umanizarre handlers slipped on hairnets (for my benefit) while the staff turned meat on the grill and stirred an enormous pot of stew, boasting of the 3,000 meals they serve each day, including special fare for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Florêncio cited prison food as the leading cause of rampant gastrointestinal illness in the system.

That day, I interviewed guards and operations managers over lunch in the staff cafeteria. “A lot of Brazilians don’t have enough respect for how serious the security situation is here, for how we’re working,” Ramos said, digging into a slab of beef with a metal knife and fork. Staff keep their own sets of metal cutlery in little pouches in a secure locker area to make sure not a single scrap of metal reaches the hands of prisoners, though it’s not unusual for Brazilian prisoners to be shanked or decapitated with metal cutlery. “We’re having some success,” Ramos said. “I stand by the system. I stand by my state.”

The staff seemed surprised when I dug into my plate of rice, beans, spaghetti, and a little cup of Coke.

“How do you like the monkey meat?” one guard asked — and old joke about prison food in Brazil.

“We’re just playing around,” another guard said. “It’s beef. Really.”

Friends and relatives of inmates wait for information about their loved ones after prison riots in Brazil on January 2, 2017. (Photo credit: MARCIO SILVA/AFP/Getty Images)

Praying for a crime wave

No matter what’s in the stew, the prisons are broken, and they’re only one shard of a fundamentally broken justice system in Brazil. Organized crime is growing — and so is the stark inequality that leaves too many young men with few ways to make a decent living. The allures of cartel life are magnified in the Amazon, so close to the world’s cocaine, so far from the rest of the world. Even youngsters who try to walk a righteous path face an early, often violent introduction to the justice system. Crime offers a brotherhood that seems stronger and more secure than the aloof state. On social media, those who escaped during the recent riots were folk heroes, and on the streets of Manaus, vendors sell DVDs of cell-phone footage of the riots, FDN vs. PCC, the pop culture incarnation of a cartel war that is staining the national fabric. Since the New Year’s massacre, the FDN has been taunting the PCC in funk songs posted on YouTube. Police in Manaus arrested a group of PCC members on a mission to kill the family of one of the FDN’s leaders.

A strain among Brazil’s elites seems more confident than ever that tough cops and hard time are the only cures for the scourge. After the first wave of riots, Temer’s National Youth Secretary Bruno Júlio gave voice to that view: “I’m pretty conservative. I’m a cop’s son, right? There should be more killings. There should be one massacre per week.” Although he abruptly resigned, his sentiment toward prisons — and the young men of color who mostly fill them — is not all that unusual among the law-and-order crowd.

“These were no saints,” Amazonas Gov. José Melo, who was recently under investigation for election fraud, said of the riots. “These were murderers, rapists.”

No saints, perhaps, but men with families who pray for them. Every weekend on visitation days, hundreds of women and children in Manaus crowd into northbound buses, lumbering along BR-174 to the unassuming prison road beyond the landfill. On one of my visits to IPAT just before Christmas 2015, a few prisoners punted soccer balls around the main yard, searching the new arrivals for familiar faces. Vendors in the parking lot huddled under the shade of canvas tents, hawking Coke, water, and chips to the thirsty pilgrims who arrived up the gentle slope carrying birthday cakes, homemade Christmas ornaments, and newborn children. For these families, the question was not whether the prison was public or private, fair or corrupt, or whether the guards felt secure in their pensions. The question was whether their loved ones would ever come home again, and if they would still be the men their families remembered.

Top photo credit: Chris Feliciano Arnold

Chris Feliciano Arnold is the author of "The Third Bank of the River: Power and Survival in the Twenty-First Century Amazon," forthcoming from Picador USA. (@chrisarnold)