A damning report stating that federal agents systematically tortured prisoners in Brazil's northern state of Pará have found little attention from President Jair Bolsonaro, who dismissed questions about the scandal as nonsense.
In early October, federal prosecutors in Pará issued a report, stating that members of a security task force, intended to stop violence within prisons, had been torturing prisoners in vicious ways, including "beatings with brooms, daily attacks with rubber bullets and pepper spray, impalement of the anus, and the piercing of feet with nails, among other atrocities," reported El País.
When asked to comment on the report on October 8, Bolsonaro told journalists to stop "asking bullshit."
Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who created the task force in July, has said that any agents found to have been involved in such practices would be punished but the Justice Ministry has publicly rejected claims of systematic torture.
"What was done by the task force is an example...The fact is that for a long time, in Brazil, it was common for there to be a situation of almost chaos in prisons," he told a press conference on October 7 while visiting the state.
"Prison is discipline, prison is serving a sentence," he continued.
Moro activated the task force in Pará after an outbreak of violence in the prison of Altamira killed 62 people in late July.
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The task force, which contained an unspecified number of agents, was supposed to "coordinate actions" by guards and other security staff at Pará's prisons.
But the report by federal prosecutors, based on testimony from lawyers, local officials and human rights organizations who visited the prisons, is damning. Officials of Pará's penitentiary system told prosecutors that conditions resembled "a concentration camp."
They described federal agents arriving with "heavy weaponry," telling local employees "they were on holiday" and that they had permission to do "whatever they wanted," according to Exame.
A court in Pará suspended the agent leading the task force, Maycon Cesar Rottava, on October 2 from his duties. But days later, Rottava was seen at Moro's side during the minister's visit to the state.
Brazil's federal penitentiary institution, DEPEN, has also defended the agents, issuing a statement saying that key prisoner testimonies within the report had been false.
InSight Crime Analysis
While the government of President Jair Bolsonaro has established a culture of virtual impunity for state security forces, the flat-out dismissal of well-sourced official reports about horrendous abuses committed by those same forces sets a worrying precedent.
This scandal ties together two crises within Brazil. Firstly, a long history of overcrowding and state abandonment has turned the country's prisons into powder kegs, which regularly explode with shocking violence. Secondly, buoyed by improving homicide numbers, the government is doubling down on its "tough on crime" tactics, which could lead to the normalization of human rights abuses such as those seen in Pará.
There is little reason to doubt the findings of the prosecutors' report, which came complete with photographic evidence. Torture inside Brazilian prisons is nothing new.
In 2017, videos emerged showing prisoners in the central state of Goiás being repeatedly shocked with stun guns by guards.
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The Bolsonaro administration has defended its agents in Pará, saying that the prisons there were previously run by Red Command (Comando Vermelho - CV). While violence between CV and other gangs for control of prisons has led to dozens of killings, the overcrowding of prisons, with many inmates not even having been formally charged, has been a major factor.
According to Brazil's Violence Monitor (Monitor da Violência), Pará currently has over 17,000 inmates, a figure 79.5 percent above its official capacity.
And the state government of Pará has sided with the government, also seeking to deny or diminish the accusations laid out against the security task force. On September 19, a glowing statement from the state Attorney General's Office lauded the task force for bringing about "clear improvements."