Warning: Some of the links below will take you to graphic and disturbing videos.
With a garland of fabulous beaches and sitting on vast mineral wealth, Maranhão is a billboard for Brazil at its best. So says the official website of the state, which is flush with upbeat news of thrumming industry, tourist getaways, bustling seaports and official initiatives to care for the neediest.
So devotees of this sun-drenched patch of the southern Atlantic seaboard would be forgiven for wondering why prison inmates are beheading one another, the state capital is in a state of panic and the attorney general is asking for federal intervention.
Never have these two conflicting versions of Brazilian reality been more evident than now, as the country learns details of how warring factions in an overcrowded state penitentiary in the capital city of São Luís recently went at one another with knives, razors and clubs while prison guards stood by helplessly. Four prisoners at the Pedrinhas Provisional Detention Center died in the fracas and three of them were decapitated, their severed heads perched on their butchered torsos like trophies.
Though the incident took place in October, graphic evidence of the clash surfaced this week in the Brazilian media. It quickly spread on the Internet and created a national scandal that even the crime-calloused Brazilians have found hard to stomach.
Filmed by the prisoners themselves and delivered to reporters by inmates’ relatives, the video fueled a sense of outrage that has been building since late last year when military police took over the conflicted Pedrinhas complex. Tensions exploded earlier this month after security forces swept several cellblocks, searching for weapons and confiscating personal belongings.
The payback came on Jan. 3, when armed youths, apparently on orders of prison gang leaders, took to the streets of the state capital São Luis, vandalizing storefronts, shooting up police stations and torching city buses. A 6-year-old girl was engulfed in flames and later died when her bus was set ablaze in a neighborhood called Vila Sarney, named for the powerful family that has ruled this state for decades.
Welcome to the flipside of Brazil, the rising Latin American powerhouse where stunning beauty and wealth collide with incredible savagery. Until just a few days ago, officials in Maranhão were spinning a different tale. The word from four-time Governor Roseana Sarney’s office was that there was no prison crisis, only hyperventilating by the National Justice Council, which she claimed insisted on publishing “untruths” about the state penal system that served only to “make the situation worse.”
Even this week, with federal officials descending on the troubled state to devise an emergency plan to curb prison violence, the governor’s palace was bullish. Touting efforts to alleviate the crowded cells and improve prison conditions, Sarney explained away the apparent spike in violence as a byproduct of prosperity, which she said is drawing migrants and criminals to the capital, with spillover to the jails. “Maranhão is doing very well,” she said.
So well, it seems, that state authorities had scheduled a public tender this week to replenish the larder at the governor’s mansion. The shopping list included about $420,000 in lobster, shrimp, crab legs and ice cream. The purchase was canceled on June 8, after the prison scandal went viral.
Such opulence goes down poorly in Maranhão, the second poorest state in Brazil, with the nation’s lowest per capita income—around $150 a month. Not surprisingly, Maranhão’s prisons are in shambles with 6,200 inmates jammed in cells built for 3,300. Pedrinhas, the largest state facility, keeps 2,300 inmates in a place scaled for 1,700, according to local human rights workers.
Last year, 62 inmates died behind bars in Maranhão. Most were casualties of a longstanding war between two rival gangs—the First Command of Maranhão and the Bonde dos 40—which reportedly make the rules in the prison system. “These two factions are organized and run the jails with an iron hand,” says Luis Antônio Pedrosa, head of the Maranhão Society for Human Rights and president of the local bar association. “We have even come across statutes written by the prison bosses.” Pedrosa says that prison officials either look the other way for a fee or are helpless to stop the gang wars.
And Maranhão is hardly alone. In a recent study, the federal prosecutor’s office documented 121 prison rebellions that claimed 759 lives in 1,598 correctional facilities nationwide from February 2012 to March 2013. Another 2,700 inmates sustained injuries during the same period.
Overcrowding is far worse in São Paulo’s prisons, which house 18,000 more people than they should. Nationwide, Brazil holds roughly 500,000 behind bars, the fourth largest jail population in the world. Only the United States (with 2.2 million inmates), China (1.6 million) and Russia (680,000) hold more prisoners.
Despite Brazil’s rising prosperity, conditions inside are routinely described as appalling, says Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, president of the United Nations Counsel on Syria, and the former human rights secretary of São Paulo. Even today, a quarter century after the end of the military dictatorship, “the majority of Brazilian prisons are an affront to human dignity,” Pinheiro wrote recently in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper.
What makes the Brazilian case particularly shocking is the country’s recent rise to world prominence. With a $2.5 trillion economy and a much-lauded anti-poverty program, this nation of 200 million is forcefully claiming its place as a world power. But as Latin America’s ranking juggernaut prepares to host this summer’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, many Brazilians may be regretting their time in the spotlight.