By Luis Felipe Cruz*
The murder of 56 prisoners in the Anísio Jobim Prison Complex (Manaus) and the massacre of 33 prisoners in the Monte Cristo Agricultural Penitentiary (Boa Vista) was an announced tragedy. Since mid-June 2016, the two-decade truce that the main criminal organizations in Brazil had agreed on was broken: the First Capital Command (PCC) from Sao Paulo and the Red Command from Rio de Janeiro. As a result of the murder of the drug trafficker Jorge Rafaatalong the border with Paraguay, a war emerged between drug cartels that control the trafficking routes in the North and West of the country. In the midst of this conflict for territorial control, the PCC gave the order of murdering all Red Command members who were in the country’s prisons.
In response to the threats of the PCC, on December 31, the Northern Family, a cartel operating in the state of Amazonas and allied with the Red Command, executed a coordinated operation in the detention centers in Manaus. While the authorities dealt with the escape of 72 prisoners in the morning at the Antônio Trindade Criminal Institution, inmates of the Anísio Jobim Prison Complex began a riot that resulted in the death of 56 people and 112 escapes. The Northern Family struck a planned coup, with bought alleged complicityfrom the directives of the prison complex. It was impossible to enter firearms into a heavily guarded prison without the omission of the guards. The chain of retaliation continued with the murder of 33 prisoners that could belong to the Red Command in the Monte Cristo Agricultural Penitentiary at the hands of members of the PCC . The tragedy will not end soon.
Prison systems in countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil and El Salvador, among others in Latin America, have remained in a critical situation for more than two decades. The riots and scenes of violence between prisoners who appeared during the first week of the year in these prisons in Brazil are not new in the region. This type of evidence shows that the drug cartels have made prisons one more stage of the cruel war they advance.
Brazil is not the only country that suffered riots and clashes between gangs during 2016. In prisons in Mexico and Guatemala it has been very difficult to maintain disputes between different drug trafficking groups outside of prisons. In February, a dispute broke out between cartels in Topo Chico Jail, located in the state of Nuevo Leon, which left 52 people dead as a result. According to some sources, it was a confrontation between groups led by Jorge Iván Hernández Cantú, alias “El Credo”, considered to be the leader of the Gulf Cartel that controlled the prison center, and Juan Pedro Salvador Saldívar Farías “the Z27” the regional leader of The Zetas. In Guatemala, during the month of July, in the Pavón Prison near the capital city, a riot resulted in 13 deaths during a confrontation between the groups of Byron Lima, who was being investigated for leading illicit enrichment networks in the prison system, and a group linked to drug trafficker Marvin Montiel Marín, alias “el Taquero.”
In El Salvador, following a riot where 32 inmates were killed at La Esperanza Criminal Center in September 2004, the government segregated gang members of Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) into different prisons in order to prevent clashes. Although the experiment seemed imperative to control violence inside prisons, it ended up turning prison centers into gang operation centers, with schools of crime, discipline regimes, and rules imposed from the outside. In this way, prisons became places of extortion and drug trafficking at a distance.
The cases of Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, and El Salvador reflect the weaknesses of states and institutions in building decent and secure prison systems. Although the problems of overcrowding and access to health services are old and structural, today an equally important challenge has arisen: to fight drug trafficking groups that promote violence within detention centers. Corruption, a lack of trained personnel to handle the prison population, the working conditions of the guards and the pressures of organized crime on prisons are some weaknesses states face in controlling what happens inside. However, the economic, military and political power of the drug cartels has proven to be the main obstacle to strengthen the security of the penitentiary systems.
Perhaps prison institutions have not fully recognized the profound influence that these gangs have, as well as the importance that prisons have for the functioning of the group. According to Camila Dias, a professor at the Federal University of the ABC, if the PCC and the Red Command are fighting with blood and fire the penitentiary centers is because in Brazil, as in other Latin American contexts, they have become the center of action of organized crime.
The authorities must abandon the idea that the prisons are separate from the outside reality and assume that today, crime arises right there. Extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking, among other activities, are coordinated from detention centers. Hence, in order to control violence, authorities must not only strengthen the perimeter control of prisons, they must also prevent prisoners from imposing their conditions inside prisons. It is not the first time that organized crime feels empowered to challenge the State and institutions and circumvent the prison system, the question is whether the State can respond with strategic actions that reduce violence and respect the rights of prisoners.
Note: The situation in Brazil is very serious. By the end of the writing of this article, a new riot took place, this time in the Jail of Alcaçuz, in Natal (Rio Grande do Norte) where 26 prisoners died last weekend. This is a continuation of the conflict between the PCC and the Red Command.
*Luis Felipe Cruz is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).