Prison Violence Spills Into Brazilian Streets

Decapitation, rape and murder headline violence in the overcrowded prisons in one of Brazil's poorest states, the bastion of a politically powerful family. Recently, the violence has even spilled out of the prisons and into the streets.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Now to Brazil and reports of beheadings, murder, and rape at a prison in the north of the country. The United Nations has called for an investigation after a graphic video surfaced from inside the jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF A VIDEO)

CORNISH: The footage shows decapitated, mutilated prisoners allegedly killed by a rival gang. The violence has spilled into the streets outside the prison on orders of imprisoned gang leaders.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is on the line from Sao Paulo. And before we begin, a word of warning to our listeners, this story involves graphic descriptions of violence.

Lourdes, start by telling us where this prison is and how this video came to light.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Well, everyone knew for a long time that this complex of prisons called Pedrinhas, in Maranhao State, was completely lawless and out of control, Audie. Last year alone there were 60 deaths there. In fact, it's much more likely that you'd been killed inside that prison than outside of it, statistically. There were reports that inmates' wives were being raped during conjugal visits - just really a violent place. And so, the security forces launched a crackdown in late December.

But the gangs' reach extends well beyond the prison walls and they ordered a retaliation. So, last week in Maranhao State, we saw attacks on police stations and several civilian buses were set on fire, on the orders apparently of gang leaders inside the prison.

In one tragic story, one little girl - she was six years old - she was set on fire and she later died in the hospital. Her great-grandfather, when he heard the terrible news, then died of a heart attack. It's just something that's gripping the country right now.

CORNISH: And it's obviously sent shockwaves through Brazil.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It has. The violence is part of a continuing struggle for power between two gangs inside the jail. Just to show you how out of control things were, when military police took over the jail, they found 300 improvised weapons, including knives and machetes in addition to drugs, alcohol, mobile phones. Outside the prison, now to prevent more arson attacks, Maranhao police have banned the sale of jerry cans that can contain gasoline. Drivers can only fill up their tanks directly at the pump.

CORNISH: And you were talking about the reputation of this prison, but generally, Brazil's prisons are considered the worst and most overcrowded in the region.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, to be honest, there's tough competition in the region for that top spot. Latin American prisons are generally known to be terrible. But Brazil has a massive prison population, 550,000 people are incarcerated here. There's been a surge in jail sentences in the last few decades. But they are vastly overcrowded because, while the prison population has grown, there aren't many new prisons being built - so, more people, not more space.

Inmates complained of having to eat raw chicken and rice, of having no place to sleep. Many human rights organizations decry the conditions inside Brazil's prisons.

CORNISH: Tell us more about the state the prison is located. I understand it's among the poorest in the country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, what's really interesting about the state is that it's run almost like a fiefdom of the Sarney family. The family owns most of the land. They own the main paper. They own radio stations. They own the TV stations. And not incidentally, they sit in the governor's mansion. Governor Roseanna Sarney is the daughter of former President Jose Sarney. There have been five decades of Sarney family ruled there - really highlighting, I think, some of the problems in Brazil regarding political corruption.

So there's been a lot of focus on that in the papers here, while this crisis has unfolded; how the governor is ordering lobster and shrimp to entertain in the governor's mansion while the state, quote-unquote, "burns."

The state is the second poorest in the country and it has one of the highest rates of illiteracy in Brazil, at nearly 21 percent. But the Sarney family is one of Brazil's richest.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Sao Paulo.

And there's been reaction from Brazil's federal government. Earlier this week, the Justice Ministry announced plans to transfer prison gang leaders from Maranhao State to federal jails.

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