Nearly 100 prisoners have been killed in Brazil since the start of the year, in a display of extreme violence reportedly spurred by a gang war unfolding in a penitentiary system suffering from severe overcrowding.
On the first day of 2017, 56 inmates died during a prison riot in the Amazon city of Manaus, the New York Times reported, calling the disturbance "among the bloodiest in recent decades."
The violence allegedly broke out as a result of a feud between two major prison gangs, the Family of the North (Família do Norte - FDN) and the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC), which have been competing for control of the Amazon region's lucrative drug trade.
Four days later, 33 prisoners were killed during another prison riot in the state of Roraima. The violence in Roraima appeared to be linked to the earlier riot in Manaus, with prisoners using the blood of the dead to write, "Blood is paid for with blood."
Reports emerged on January 8 of yet another fatal prison incident, as four inmates were killed overnight in a prison in Manaus, bringing the total number of inmates murdered this year to 99, according to O Globo.
Although three of the four inmates killed during the latest incident were beheaded, Amazonas' penitentiary administration secretary Pedro Florêncio, stated that those deaths were unrelated to gang rivalries. (Beheadings and other gruesome acts are a relatively common occurrence during prison riots in Brazil.)
Initial reports indicated that only two guards were on duty at the time of the most recent riot, in a center housing around 300 inmates that had just received transferred prisoners following a separate prison massacre. The motive behind the violence seems to have been a demand for better housing conditions.
In the wake of the bloodshed in the penetentiary system, Brazilian President Michel Temer has highlighted the need to build more prisons in order to reduce overcrowding.
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While the brutal violence seems to be the consequence of the recent and ongoing gang war rattling Brazil's criminal landscape, structural weaknesses and extreme rates of overpopulation provide fertile ground for gang violence behind bars.
The second half of 2016 witnessed the breakdown in a two-decade long alliance between Brazil's two most powerful gangs, the PCC and the Red Command, which sparked a series of prison killings in northern states. The Roraima prison where 33 inmates recently died had already been the scene of a deadly incident in October 2016 that many understood as a confirmation of the breakdown. And the FDN has previously been reported to be at the centre of these evolving alliances.
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Clarín noted that the prison where 56 prisoners were killed on January 1 held 1,224 inmates, even though its official housing capacity stands at 454 -- a stark reminder of how Brazil's overpopulated, underfunded penitentiary system creates conditions that contribute to violence within prison walls.