What’s behind Brazil’s prison riots

How many violence-free days, how many reboots? Morro dos Prazeres, July 2016

Prisoners call the shots, inside and out

Few reports on the recent prison revolts mention the reasons for the violence that has so far caused about 16 prisoner deaths and the flight of 55 detainees, most recaptured.

Brazilians are used to this type of news. We know about the chronic overcrowding and inhuman conditions. Monday night’s Jornal Nacional report could run any year or hour in recent decades.

The news program, which skipped Monday’s fire at a São Paulo state penitentiary (reported by GloboNews), spoke of a “fight between factions”. Grupo Globo never utters the factions’ names. This, plus the report’s length — 45 seconds — might be why an inattentive viewer might think of the Rondônia and Roraima revolts as local events.

In Rio, Monday’s security news focused on the swearing-in of Roberto Sá, José Mariano Beltrame’s former right-hand, as our new Public Safety Secretary.

Coordination in this area appears to be lacking. Alexandre Morães, the Temer government’s Justice Minister (since May), took the opportunity to describe e new interdisciplinary national security plan, by which court sentences would be longer for more serious crimes. Although Morães spoke of the plan months before, the news surprised the presidential palace, according to columnist Guilherme Amado. Over the weekend came the strange news that Carmen Lúcia, Federal Supreme Court President, had scheduled an emergency meeting for October 28, to deal with the current public safety crisis.

Brazil could use some coordination among the three levels of government in the drafting and execution of public safety policy. Claudio Beato, coordinator of the Federal University of Minas Gerais’ Centro de Estudos de Criminalidade e Segurança Pública (Center for Criminality and Public Safety Studies), reminded me that this has just about never occurred. The would-be focus on borders that Minister Moraes has spoken about, says Beato, would be less effective than greater cooperation with our neighbors and the use of technology, intelligence and investigatory work.

At any rate, he adds, many weapons here glide in over the waters of Guanabara Bay.

Since June, it’s been public knowledge that the Paraguay murder of a key trafficker, at the command of a Brazilian jailed there, allegedly at the hand of a carioca criminal (from the Fogueteiro favela), would likely destabilize organized crime in the area, affecting street crime in several cities across Brazil.

From O Globo, in June 2016:

“Rio Public Safety Secretary José Mariano Beltrame said this Thursday that Rafaat’s murder would affect future crime in Brazil:

‘He was a longtime drug and weapons supplier from Paraguay. He didn’t allow Brazilians to set up shop there, he didn’t like it. He was killed movie-style. We have reports saying that a São Paulo faction has been in Paraguay for a while. If this is happening, we’ll have Brazilians from this group of traffickers bringing weapons and drugs to São Paulo. From there, they’ll be distributed throughout the country. It’s very serious. Brazil, as a nation, must do something,’ said Beltrame.”

According to some specialists, Rafaat’s death destroyed an alliance that the PCC, São Paulo’s dominant organized crime group, had with the Comando Vermelho (Red Command), from Rio. It’s said to be this change that led to the prison revolts and to dozens of prison transfer requests, made earlier.

It’s not clear what the outcome of this part of the story will be, nor if the recent shooting in several Rio favelas are part of a move to reorganize from the top down. Pointing to similar situations in Mexico and Colombia, Beato believes that we’ll see more peaceful times in the long term. Business priorities, he says, will ultimately drive organized crime behavior — and differences will be left aside.

Prisoners’ sway over urban life in Brazil cannot be underestimated. The 2010 Complexo do Alemão military invasion came in response to a series of defiant bus and car torchings across Rio. At the time, Beltrame, then Public Safety Secretary, said he knew that the orders had come from inside prisons, from traffickers made uneasy by pacification.

As long as the criminal groups are in flux we are likely to experience a great deal of concern and apprehension, especially given the state’s near bankruptcy and its difficulty in making police payrolls.

Rob Muggah, the Instituto Igarapé security and development specialist, wrote this in a message to me:

“It’s grim. Apparently the PCC had orders to massacre all CV inmates in Roraima. Then the CV were told to kill the PCC in Rondonia in retaliation. All of this is linked to the prison business, but … is also likely connected to the encroachment of the PCC into CV territory (in Rio) over the past few years. The CV took a beating from the UPP, even if they have returned a bit more forcefully in recent years. And … it’s also probable that this is about a shake-up in the drug business that started a few months back. The PCC has been expanding its involvement in the arms/drugs trafficking parts of the business where CV had control/alliances. Things started to unravel after [Jarvis Chimenes] Pavão (reportedly aided by PCC) led the assassination of Rafaat (CV’s man) in Paraguay a few months ago. This resulted in a huge amount of uncertainty (in a business that generates $30–40 million a year) and we may be seeing some fallout now.”