The dark side of jails in Brazil

Dark Side of Brazil: Beheadings on the Fabulous Beaches of Maranhão

Six months before the World Cup is set to kick off, an epidemic of prison violence is plaguing this sun-drenched patch of the southern Atlantic seaboard

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.

Police prepare to enter the Pedrinhas prison to control a fight between inmates of rival gangs inside, in Sao Luiz, capital of Maranhao state, January 8, 2014. The recent posting on a major Brazilian news website of a video filmed last December 17 by Pedrinhas prisoners of the decapitated and tortured bodies of rival inmates inside the jail has highlighted some of the problems present in the country's prison system which houses nearly twice as many prisoners as its capacity, according to official statistics. REUTERS/Douglas Jr./O Estado do Maranhao (BRAZIL - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW) - RTX176SK
Police prepare to enter the Pedrinhas prison to control a fight between inmates of rival gangs inside on Jan. 8, 2014. (Reuters/Douglas Jr./O Estado do Maranhao)

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.

Dark Side Brazil_01
The charred remains of a bus. A 6-year-old girl died when it was set on fire.

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.

A prisoner from the Pedrinhas prison is escorted by medics, prison officials, and relatives after he was injured during a fight between rival gangs inside the jail, in Sao Luiz, capital of Maranhao state, January 8, 2014. The recent posting on a major Brazilian news website of a video filmed last December 17 by Pedrinhas prisoners of the decapitated and tortured bodies of rival inmates inside the jail has highlighted some of the problems present in the country's prison system which houses nearly twice as many prisoners as its capacity, according to official statistics. REUTERS/Douglas Cunha/O Estado do Maranhao (BRAZIL - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW) - RTX176T2
An injured prisoner from the Pedrinhas prison is escorted by medics, prison officials and relatives on Jan. 8, 2014. (Reuters/Douglas Cunha/O Estado do Maranhao)

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.

Respond Now
  • Ghhhhhhh

  • every country run by hispanics  no rule of law.

    1 Reply - Reply Now
    • First off brazalians are not Hispanic their Portuguese…. The country itself is part of Latin America but the language is totally different … Like really dude ignorant …

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      • Anthony who cares? This article had a lot of information on the problems in Brazil and this is what you focus on?  lol  The American Census definition of “hispanic” includes Brazilians as do Federal affirmative action programs which include them in hispanic/latino programs.  Also the very word hispanic itself, is derived from the name Hispania, the word ancient Romans used for the Iberian Peninsula, which included Spain, PORTUGAL, Andorra.. maybe you are ignorant or just elitist.  No gives an F##k and I am Puerto Rican but yeah so what? The biggest thing I care about is being “American”.

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      • Hi you all!This information is for everyone!Listen you wrote out your feelings and your opinions it is just fine. But if you don’t know the country well, please don’t belittle any country with your own ideas of their reality. I am a Brazilian work in the USA as a “Chaplain” doing my volunteer work among prisoners, I know a little about the reality of prisons here in the “first world” like many of you like to express yourself. There is violence generate by “gang’s members and faccions” all over the USA and in the world! I receive a lot letters from inmates telling me the horrible things happenning to them inside their unity. There are death, corruptions, rapes,etc.. you name it. Brazil is a country as any other country. The big cities are like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc where the violence is at work everyday. If you don’t want to be hurt, don’t go out after dark and take your own precautions when you go to vacation in the big cities.

      • +
      • Gabriel — Get the chip off your shoulder…you”ll live longer.

      • anthony  “They’re”  not “their.”

  • Soon the animals will be running the world, not just the prisons.  Stop the world, I want to get off!~

  • I stopped visting Brazil after I was stabbed in broad daylight in Rio and nobody tried to help.Beautiful country but it has been taken over by savages.

  • Dear Mac Margolis, State of Maranhao has zero to do with the world cup. People like Mac Margolis are typical idiotic “human rights” leftist jerks from up north that prefer to pay for prisoners so they can be in a hotel/spa. A good criminal is a death criminal. You don’t want to end up in a Brazilian prison? Don’t steal, don’t murder, go to work, go to school, do something better in life.Brazil should not invest in “better prisons”, but education, health and infrastructure such as better roads. People like Bee Moo are trendy jerks and talk different untill they get a gun in their face from the same bandit that used to be in a Brazilian prison. I am sick and tired of the fake “racist subjects” but it’s a fact that it’s time that the black community in Brazil works together in solving crime..because the facts are: it’s high in their group. 

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    • Yea remember when Africa colonized Brasil?  Me neither…< = >

  • Most third world and emerging countries allow the heavy hand of the UNITED NATIONS to shape their economic and social policies. As a result Christianity has been tossed aside as a relic of antiquity. Gangs have replaced traditional families. Those who scoff at faith-based marriage and two-parent households do so at their own peril. However, there will be a meeting nearby to discuss climate-change and carbon credits.

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  • They’re in prison for a reason.  Don’t think the prison population is “humane”?   I do.  Solution to the problem is avoid the reason.

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    • The Germans had it right. When they took control of cities they would seize the police records of all the convicts and problem people round them all up and kill them. End of Gangs murders robberys ect.!

      2 Replies - Reply Now
      • Hey julez you are right hope you would still feel the same if their doctrine also dictated that all people who post how they, the Germans; ‘seized the police records of all the convicts and problem people rounded them all up and killed them.’ Online where to also be rounded up and killed.

      • I find it disturbing that you, GUNYVW, find ANYTHING that Hitler’s Germany did even REMOTELY “right”. I agree with BRASIL_TWEET in that the money needs to be spent on schools and employment education. I do, however, think that prisons should be a step above the prisoners living in their own waste and having no protection at all from disease and death at another prisoner’s hand. They have so much money, figure out how to split it in a way that makes sense, not just all of it to one thing.

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      • +
      • My apologies GUNYVW, my rant was actually pointed at JULEZ.

  • Being a gang member should equal DEATH by hanging That is the only way to get control plus it would cut down on the prison population

    2 Replies - Reply Now
    • in that case any affiliation or loyalty to any group, including law enforcement, should be hanged as well. that would cut down prison pop. since there would be nobody left to enforce the laws.

      1 Reply - Reply Now
      • BEE MO I think will be good you shut up, and stop to say stupid things.

    • Bee Mo, you are stupid!

  • terrible  it sets God Jesus teeth on edge….Who do you blame?  people  killing  people….God  loves  us …but we  hate  each  other…God  have mercy on us all….

  • Note to self: never get put in a Brazillian prison.  Because of the way they treat their poor, never ever spend money on a vacation there.

  • wow that is … i dont know really sad and  scary at the same time

    1 Reply - Reply Now
    • The way the people is treated, I would now never go to      Brazill on vacation.  To many other decent countries.

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