Human Rights Watch Blames Brazil’s Prison Overcrowding on Country’s Anti-Drug Law

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticized Brazil’s prison overcrowding problem in its World Report released January 12, citing the country’s 2006 anti-drug law as one of the underlying causes.

“That law introduced harsher punishment for drug trafficking, and while it also allowed for alternative penalties including community service for drug users, it used vague language, leaving it up to the police to tell users from traffickers,” said HRW Brazil Director, Maria Laura Canineu.

She argued drug users should not be put among traffickers to serve their jail sentences, and advocated a revision of Brazil’s drug war policy to better address the prison system issues, as about 60% of the male prison population and nearly 30% of the female is jailed on drug charges. “These figures are too large to be ignored,” she said.

The HRW report also emphasized the need to isolate defendants jailed in custody to await trial from convicts serving jail sentences, and went on to suggest separating dangerous inmates from less aggressive ones and based on their gang affiliations.

This might prevent clashes between rival groups like the one that ended up in a massacre in Manaus, Amazonas, in the first week of this year.

The juvenile detention system was also criticized for serving to recruit young criminals while it fails in its mission to reintegrate juvenile offenders into the community.

Human Rights Watch raised a red flag on the number of killings committed by police officers, and urged the need to investigate and hold them accountable, while pointing out a large number of police officers are also murdered in the country.

The Brazilian Public Security Forum reports that 393 police officers were killed in Brazil in 2015. That same year, police forces killed 3,345 people, 6% more than in 2014, and 52% more than in 2013.

In Rio de Janeiro, deaths resulting from police action jumped by 30% between 2015 and 2016. According to HRW Brazil Director Maria Laura Canineu, it is not known how many of those deaths resulted from clashes or were outright executions.

Despite the criticism, the HWR report also recognized Brazil’s progress when it comes to protecting human rights, including the expansion of a custody hearings program run by the National Justice Council (CNJ), which gives prisoners the opportunity to be brought before judges following their arrest.

Another important development mentioned by the report was the enhancement of the Ministry of Justice’s National Mechanism for the Prevention and Combating of Torture.

Twenty Six Deaths

Following an inspection round at Alcaçuz State Penitentiary in the metropolitan area of Natal, Rio Grande do Norte state, public security officials in the state said in an interview on January 15 that 26 people — the previous 27 body count was later revised — were killed during a prison riot that began January 14.

A gang war between two rival factions with members serving jail sentences at the prison facility sparked a riot at pavilion 4 of the penitentiary as inmates from a separate hall (pavilion 5) escaped and started the clashes.

The mutiny was subdued early on January 15. All the state’s police forces were marshaled to contain the fighting and prevent it from sprawling to other pavilions.

Public security authorities in Rio Grande do Norte say they have identified at least six inmates as leaders of the riot. Any convicts proven to have been involved will face criminal charges and could be relocated to federal supermax facilities.

State Justice Secretary Walber Virgolino da Silva Ferreira said the inside of Alcaçuz was a barbaric sight of devastation and mutilated corpses.

State authorities believe earlier prison riots and massacres in Amazonas and Roraima in the first few days of the year have “ignited” inmates in Rio Grande do Norte. According to the justice secretary, Brazil’s prison system has been fraught with tension in all states. Earlier in the past week, military police had confiscated weapons and mobiles inside the penitentiary.

On January 16, police and riot control troops checked the prison again for cold weapons that may have been used in the killings.

Armed Forces

The federal government has authorized the Armed Forces to work in prisons to look for prohibited items and to strengthen security in prison units. The announcement was made after a meeting attended by President Michel Temer and authorities of all security bodies and military institutions, aimed to explore public safety strategies.

“In an innovative and pioneering initiative, the president offered the Armed Forces’ support to state governments. The proven operational capability of our military officers is offered to governors for specific cooperation actions at prison units,” said Alexandre Parola, spokesman for the presidency.

However, according to the government, prison and police officers will continue to be responsible for the internal security. “Prisons will be subject to routine inspections for detecting and seizing prohibited contraband items in those facilities. This operation aims to restore normality and achieve basic safety standards in Brazilian prisons,” Parola reported.

The spokesman also said that state governments are “according to the constitution, responsible for prisons,” but as the prison crisis has reached a “national level,” it requires an “extraordinary operation of the federal government.”

Six ministers attended the meeting at the presidential office, together with representatives from the Joint Staff of the Armed Forces, the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (ABIN), the National Secretariat of Public Security (SENASP), among others, in addition to members of the Federal Highway Police and the Federal Police.

The participants of the meeting are members of the Advisory Council of the Brazilian Intelligence System (SISBIN), formed by different bodies for exchanging intelligence information. The meeting schedule of state and federal security officials became more demanding after the crisis in the prison system worsened. Since January 1, at least 119 prisoners were killed in Manaus (AM), Boa Vista (RR) e Nísia Floresta (RN).

The cooperation between local and federal authorities in combating organized crime and modernizing prison units is part of the National Security Plan launched by the federal government ten days ago. The meeting was closed and lasted just over one hour.

According to the spokesman, President Temer ordered the creation of a commission aiming to reform the Brazilian prison system. The commission will be formed by members of the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches, along with the organized civil society.

The government also intends to improve Brazil’s intelligence integration, like happened during Rio Olympic Games last year.

Coyote Gangs

Brazil’s Federal Police launched Operation “Pirates of the Caribbean” to execute court warrants in Rondônia, Minas Gerais, and Santa Catarina states, on a hunt for gangs of coyotes that smuggle Brazilians illegally into the United States.

About 30 police officers are carrying out raids to serve seven search and five arrest warrants.

Police are looking for clues of the 12 Brazilians who went missing in the Bahamas last November after hiring smugglers in different cities to illegally enter the US via the Bahamas.

According to a police statement, the investigations began after a Brazilian who had hired coyotes for up to $19,000 to enter the US illegally was reported missing. Before leaving Brazil, the illegal immigrants waited in cities within easy access to international airports until they were instructed to depart for the Bahamas with the help of a local immigration officer.

Once landing in the Bahamas, the immigrants waited for several days to sail to the US. According to Federal Police, the coyotes had not told them about the real dangers of the illegal crossing.



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