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Death Toll From Brazil Prison Riot Reaches 26; Decapitations Are Seen

The death toll from a riot in a penitentiary in northeastern Brazil rose on Sunday to 26 prisoners, increasing the number of prison killings in the country this year to more than 120.

Decapitations and mutilations are common in Brazil's violent, overcrowded prisons, in which 40 percent of inmates have yet to be sentenced, but the latest wave of brutality has appalled many here.

The riot began around 5 p.m. on Saturday at the State Penitentiary of Alcaçuz, 13 miles from Natal, in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, and continued until around 7 a.m. on Sunday, when riot police officers took control of the prison.

"The situation of the rebellion is controlled," said Maj. Eduardo Franco of the Rio Grande do Norte police.

On Sunday, the authorities initially said they had found 27 bodies, but the death toll was later revised to 26; Major Franco said there had been a mistake. Many of the bodies were mutilated.

The prison has a capacity of 620 but was holding around 1,100 prisoners when the riot began, the authorities said. All of the inmates had been sentenced, Major Franco added.

Wilma Batista, the director of the prison agents' union in Rio Grande do Norte, sent a photograph of two headless, mutilated corpses in a prison yard via a cellphone messaging service and said she had seen many others.

"We are shocked," she said.

With Brazil swamped in recession, President Michel Temer's government reeling from one graft scandal after another, and a wave of seemingly uncontrollable prison violence, many Brazilians feel they are going back to a darker recent past when crime, corruption and the economy were out of control.

"We thought we had turned that page, and now it is coming back," said Mauricio Santoro, a professor of international relations and political science at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

The killings reflected the escalation of a deadly gang war that exploded when 56 prisoners were massacred in Manaus, in Amazonas State, on Jan. 1. Four more were killed the next day in another jail in the city.

The state authorities attributed the Manaus deaths to the Family of the North, an Amazon drug gang that had attacked prisoners connected to a rival gang, the São Paulo-based First Capital Command, known by its Portuguese abbreviation, P.C.C.

The gangs were believed to be fighting for control of lucrative drug smuggling routes. The P.C.C. was for years allied with a Rio de Janeiro drug gang called the Red Command. Last year, the alliance fell apart, leading to a spate of prison killings.

On Jan. 6, after the Manaus massacre, 33 prisoners were found butchered at a prison in Boa Vista in Roraima State, in the far north of Brazil. The state authorities said the P.C.C. was behind the killings. Four more prisoners were killed in a third Manaus prison after being moved from the site of the first massacre.

The riot on Saturday night began when prisoners linked to the P.C.C. rebelled during visiting hours, Ms. Batista said. They were in a separate prison, Rogério Coutinho Madruga, which is next to Alcaçuz and effectively part of the same complex. She said that just six prison agents were on duty, and that they managed to free visitors before retreating to another block.

"The agents saved the visitors and had to retreat" because prisoners set the block on fire, Ms. Batista said.

The escaped prisoners then attacked a block inside the Alcaçuz jail that housed men from another gang, the Rio Grande do Norte-based Crime Syndicate, Ms. Batista said.

Since 2015, many of the cells inside Alcaçuz have had no bars, and prisoners wander freely 24 hours a day, Ms. Batista said.

Police officers and prison guards managed to stop the killing from spreading further, but electricity to the prison was cut. The police decided to wait until dawn before entering, and they restrained desperate relatives who were trying to get inside.

Lincoln Gakiya, a state prosecutor from an organized crime unit in São Paulo State who has specialized in the P.C.C., said its split with the Red Command was behind the crisis. The Rio gang has allied with five other gangs around Brazil, including the Crime Syndicate.

"This war is for the hegemony of the drug trade," Mr. Gakiya said. "The prison system is not prepared for this gang war. There is no place to separate the gangs. The system is overcrowded, so the tendency is to get worse."

A cellphone video circulating on social media showed a man with his face covered, brandishing what looked like a machete or a sword, walking among a large number of mutilated bodies in what appeared to be a prison yard. The letters P.C.C. were scrawled in what looked like blood on a wall.

Although it was impossible to verify the video, the bodies visible were wearing blue shorts similar to those worn by prisoners shown in local news reports. Grisly videos like this have circulated after all of the attacks.

Sublieutenant Eliabe Marques, a police officer and the president of a Rio Grande do Norte state association of police and firefighter sublieutenants, said the dispute between the P.C.C. and the Crime Syndicate had grown worse recently.

"In jail, the prisoner has to join one or other of the gangs, P.C.C. or the Crime Syndicate," he said. "It is a phenomenon that is making the situation in Rio Grande do Norte even more serious."

Ms. Batista said the prison agents' union had warned of potentially explosive conditions inside the prison but had been ignored.

"It is very sad, not just for the butchery, but to see organized crime face the state, the power of the state, leaving more scars on prison agents who suffer psychologically and physically from such a stressful profession," she said.

[Source: By Dom Phillips, The New York Times, Rio de Janeiro, 15Jan17]

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