With Nearly 100 Dead in Prison Riots, Brazil’s Government Faces Crisis

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RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s government is struggling to cope with overcrowded and violent prisons that have seen nearly 100 inmates killed within a week, with many beheaded and dismembered.

This is one of the most serious crises that Michel Temer, the president of Brazil, has faced since assuming power last year after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff.

Critics have described the Temer administration’s response as inadequate and called the refusal by all spheres of government to accept responsibility as “absurd.”

“This is a challenge to civilization,” said José Moisés, a professor of political science at the University of São Paulo. “It was not a good response.”

After 56 prisoners were killed in a riot between rival drug gangs that began on Jan. 1 at the privately run Anísio Jobim Penitentiary complex in Manaus in Amazonas state, followed by four killed the next day at a nearby jail, it took Mr. Temer three days to respond.

He called it a “terrible accident” and said that because a private company ran the prison where the killings happened, the state bore no clear responsibility.

His comments were widely ridiculed.

“The majority saw the president’s declaration as disdainful to the seriousness of the situation,” The Sensationalist, a widely read satirical website, said.

“The government treated this tragedy as if it was unforeseen. This is absurd,” said Maria Laura Canineu, the director in Brazil of Human Rights Watch.

Ms. Canineu pointed to a December 2015 report from the National Mechanism for the Prevention and Combat of Torture, a group of independent researchers linked to the Ministry of Justice, that described a potentially explosive situation at the Anísio Jobim prison, where prisoners were scared they could be tortured and killed in a riot.

Adding to the recent carnage, 33 died on Jan. 6 in a prison riot outside Boa Vista, in Roraima, north of Brazil.

Police officers said two rival drug gangs, the First Capital Command and the Family of the North, are involved in a bloody war for control of lucrative Amazon drug smuggling routes and are behind the grisly murders in recent days.

Murders and robberies have soared in the city of Manaus since the prison killings, said Gerson Feitosa, a police corporal and president of a local police association.

“People are scared,” he said. “After the massacre, the war on the streets has started.”

Alexandre de Moraes, the minister of justice, released a draft of a National Plan of Public Security on Jan. 6. First announced in October, the proposal aims to reduce homicides, modernize the prison system and improve cooperation between security agencies and neighboring nations in the fight against cross-border organized crime.

It includes building five new federal prisons for 220 dangerous prisoners, $248 million for states to build new jails and $94 million for cellphone blockers, body scanners and ankle bracelets.

Robert Muggah, founder of the Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro, which specializes in public security and drug policy, said that the plan included welcoming innovations, like a target to reduce homicides by 7 percent a year, but that it was too focused on law and order.

“The fight against drugs will fail if it’s reduced to eradicating drug production and seizing drugs,” Mr. Muggah said. Drug use and possession should be decriminalized, he said.

Violence has been a problem for decades in Brazil’s overcrowded prisons, where drug gangs rule and decapitations are common.

And memories are still fresh in Brazil of the violence that terrorized São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, in 2006, when fighting between the police and the First Capital Command gang killed almost 200 people.

In addition to the criticism faced by the Temer administration, the Amazonas state government faces a number of serious accusations.

A report by state prosecutors dated Jan. 4 requested that private prison contracts be rescinded because of the “lack of control of security and inefficient management.”

In 2012, 3 percent of Brazilian inmates were in privately run prisons.

Prosecutors said the state government paid Umanizzare, the company running Anísio Jobim prison, around $1,458 a month for each prisoner, nearly twice the Brazilian average of $745 cited by the president of Brazil’s top court, Cármen Lúcia, in November.

The state government is also said to have negotiated peace in the state’s prisons with the Family of the North in July 2015.

An investigation that year by Brazil’s Federal Police into the gang said that one of its jailed leaders met with a state government official and helped end the occupation of parts of two secure wings at another Manaus prison by the rival gang, the First Capital Command. The drug leader, in return, was promised he would not be transferred to a high-security federal prison.

“The Northern Family came out strengthened from this regrettable episode,” the report said.

The Amazonas state governor, José Melo, has denied that any negotiation took place. Last week, Mr. Melo also said there were “no saints” killed in the Manaus massacre.

A similar view was expressed by the youth secretary in Mr. Temer’s administration, Bruno Júlio. “There has to be a massacre every week,” he said. Amid widespread outrage over the comment, Mr. Júlio quit hours later.

The killings are continuing.

On Sunday, four more prisoners died in Manaus, three of whom were beheaded.

More than 100 prisoners who escaped in the riot from Anísio Jobim prison are still at large. And Manaus police officers said they need more than just talk to combat a growing drug trade across a vast state.

“We don’t have structure to combat this,” said Rafael Costa e Silva, an investigating officer and police union representative in Manaus.

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