At least 25 Brazilian prisoners were killed – many of them in the most grisly fashion – after infighting broke out Sunday between rival gangs in a correctional facility in the northern Amazonian city of Boa Vista, shining a spotlight on problems of chronic overcrowding and medieval conditions that plague the country’s prison system.
Of the more than two dozen victims in the violent clashes, seven of the prisoners were decapitated and another six were burned to death, according to the special operations police unit known by the Portuguese acronym, BOPE. The bloody incident took place at the Agrícola de Monte Cristo penitentiary in the provincial capital of Boa Vista.
In addition to the deaths, some 100 family members of prisoners — many of them women, in the prison for visiting hours — were taken hostage during the clashes, according to the local Secretariat of Justice and Citizenship. The hostages were released after being held briefly.
The wife of one of the prisoners told the Brazilian newspaper O Globo, that the violent episode erupted when inmates armed with knives and makeshift clubs from one wing broke into another wing of the prison.
The head of the union of penal workers of the state of Roraima, Joana Moura, told the local newspaper Folha de Boa Vista that the riot reflected the “lack of interest from the state government” to address problems in the prison system.
“There is no security equipment, there are not enough personnel for tasks, and the (guards) are working beyond their limits,” Moura said.
The facility is more than 2,000 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, near the border with Venezuela, and is Boa Vista’s largest jail.
Brazil’s incarcerated population doubled in the past decade, ballooning to some 622,000 prisoners at the end of 2014. Harsh sentences for drug-related crimes and a chronically slow judicial system are credited for contributed to the spike in inmate population.
The majority of prisoners in the country are black men, according to the Ministry of Justice. Brazil is home to more African-descended people than any country save Nigeria.
Human rights groups have repeatedly raised concerns about the inhumane living conditions in Brazilian correctional facilities, which play an instrumental role in sparking violent clashes.
Members of a gang known as Primeiro Comando da Capital are suspected of instigating the riot against rival faction Comando Vermelho, or ‘Red Commando,’ in wing 12 of the Roraima state prison.
Roraima Secretary of Justice and Citizenship, Oziel de Castro, told Metro Jornal São Paulo that ‘war’ has been declared between the factions.
He said the rival factions were causing “nationwide disruption.”
The Primeiro Comando da Capital, or ‘First Command of the Capital,’ operates out of São Paulo and is regarded as one of the fiercest criminal gangs in Brazil. Local media reports that the gang is thought to significantly outnumber their ‘Red Commando’ enemies at the Agricultural Penitentiary facility.
Primeiro Comando da Capital is thought to rake in at least US$ 32 million from their lucrative drug trafficking operations, with AFP reporting in 2012 that the cartel has 13,000 foot soldiers, half of whom have spent time in prison.
Brazil has a history of violent prison skirmishes, including the Carandiru Penitentiary massacre in 1992, during which 100 inmates were killed in the severely overcrowded facility.
Last year, the military reportedly took over security at the Monte Cristo facility after 15 inmates escaped on December 24.
Brazil has the fourth-highest prison population in the world, behind the US, China, and Russia, with more than 620,000 inmates, according to the Institute of Criminal Policy Research.
Amnesty International has spoken out against the nation’s prison network, saying that violence and overcrowding is “endemic” in Brazilian jails.