52 inmates killed in violent prison riot in Brazil

A group of people stand outside a concrete wall.
The prison where the riot took place. Photo credit: AAP

Warning: This article contains details that may disturb some readers.

A bloody clash between two prison gangs on Monday left at least 52 inmates dead, 16 of them decapitated, in the northern state of Para, the latest deadly prison clash this year as Brazil's far-right government struggles to control the country's jails.

State authorities said the riot began around 7am (local time) in a prison in the city of Altamira, and involved rival gangs.

Prisoners belonging to the Comando Classe A gang set fire to a cell containing inmates who belonged to the Comando Vermelho, or Red Command, gang, Para's state government said in a statement. Two guards were taken hostage but later released.

"It was a targeted act," state prison director Jarbas Vasconcelos said in the statement, adding there was no prior intelligence that suggested an attack would take place.

"The aim was to show that it was a settling of accounts between the two gangs."

Videos circulating online showed inmates celebrating as they kicked decapitated heads across the floor. Reuters was unable to independently verify the footage.

Elected on a tough-on-crime message, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has benefited from a sharp drop in homicides this year. Nonetheless, endemic prison violence has been a stubborn public security challenge in one of the world's most violent countries.

In May, at least 55 inmates died during an attack in a lockup in the northern state of Amazonas. In 2017, weeks of violence in Amazonas resulted in 150 prison deaths as local gangs backed by Brazil's two largest drug factions went to war.

Brazil's justice ministry said in a statement that it was working with Para state authorities to identify those behind the latest attack, adding it had opened up space in Brazil's federal prison system where those gang leaders would be sent.

Brazil's incarcerated population has surged eight-fold in three decades to around 750,000 inmates, the world's third-highest tally. Prison gangs, originally formed to protect inmates and advocate for better conditions, have come to wield vast power that reaches far beyond prison walls. They have been linked to bank heists, drug trafficking and gun-running, with jailed kingpins presiding over empires via smuggled cellphones.

In the violent northeast, prison gangs have grown powerful moving cocaine from Colombia and Peru along the Amazon's waterways to the Atlantic coast, where it heads to Africa and Europe. Murderous disputes often arise as they clash over territorial control.

The Red Command gang hails from Rio de Janeiro but has expanded deep into the north and northeast of Brazil as it seeks to diversify its income stream. That expansion has often led to confrontations with the First Capital Command, headquartered in Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest and most powerful gang.

The Comando Classe A gang is a relatively small gang, little known outside Para. Its high-profile attack against the powerful Red Command could give it a nationwide reputation.

Bolsonaro's government has proposed moving powerful incarcerated drug lords to federal lockups and building more prisons at the state level. However, with the vast majority of prisons run by Brazil's overstretched state governments, Bolsonaro is limited on what he can achieve from Brasilia.

In February, Justice Minister Sergio Moro unveiled his signature crime-fighting bill, including proposals to toughen prison sentences and isolate gang leaders in maximum-security lockups.

That bill, however, has struggled in Congress, with the government prioritizing its pension reform bill.

Reuters