A new round of violence in Brazil's prisons is reviving concerns that ongoing problems in the penitentiary system could have implications for the country's broader security situation.
Twenty-six prisoners were killed January 15 in the prison of Alcaçuz in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, in the latest wave of gang violence that has swept through Brazil's prison system in recent months.
All of the victims were members of a local crime group identified as Sindicato do RN, rivals of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC), Brazil's largest criminal group, according to a report from O Globo.
It is possible, though unconfirmed, that the violence could be in retaliation to another recent clash between prison gangs that left a number of PCC members dead.
O Globo reports that members of the PCC invaded a section of the prison housing Sindicato do RN members, attacking them and beheading and burning some of the victims.
As the clash unfolded, the prisoners reportedly cut electricity wires, causing a power outage that deactivated cell phone signal-blocking devices. This allowed the prisoners to record the events and send messages about them to the outside world.
Upon learning about the outbreak of violence, wives of inmates of the two factions involved gathered outside the facility, and ended up in a physical altercation with each other, leaving two injured, local media reported.
In addition, several shootouts occurred in the nearby city of Natal on the afternoon of the prison attack. Sources told O Globo that the incidents were related to the violence in the prison. Authorities did not confirm or deny this link, and said that no one had been injured.
The governor of Rio Grande do Norte asked for federal help to deal with the situation. The national government responded by sending several dozen federal security forces to help secure the area around the prison.
InSight Crime Analysis
This recent incident serves as a reminder of the lack of control authorities exert over Brazil's prison system, and how this dynamic can contribute to violence on the street.
The shootings on the streets of Natal were reportedly ordered by gang members inside the prison where the riot was occurring, suggesting that imprisoned gang members exert substantial influence over what happens outside the penitentiary system. Similar events occurred in October 2016, where shootings left 11 dead in the town of Rio Branco following a deadly clash between the PCC and a rival gang in a nearby prison.
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This particular outbreak also how issues in Brazil's prisons, such as overcrowding and lack of resources, can impact life outside of prison. A prison guard speaking on the condition of anonymity told O Globo that the number of guards at Alcaçuz prison had been reduced from 21 to 7 in recent years, and that the prison population had risen to nearly double its official capacity. These problems are regrettably all too common in the Brazilian penitentiary system, which is one of the largest and most violent in Latin America.