Running the joint

Roberto Silva was caught with a small amount of marijuana. In prison, he witnessed inmates walk freely outside of their cells, use drugs, talk on cellphones and carry weapons.

Soon, he became one of them.

This is the story of Presídio Central, a correctional facility in Brazil that has become a headquarters for the organized crime. And it all began when a cab crashed into the lobby of the fanciest hotel in town.


Story Carla Ruas | Editor Fronteira
Design Marcelo Armesto | Photos Daniel Marenco


As the lobby clock struck 9:30 pm, there was a loud crash inside Plaza São Rafael — the most expensive hotel in Porto Alegre, a city in southern Brazil. An incoming car had shattered the glass entrance and made its way through the lobby, parking right next to the front desk and directly under a twenty-five-light chandelier. Hotel guests and staff stared at the scene in disbelief. After a few seconds, a man fired gunshots from inside the car towards the entrance of the hotel. Police officers on the scene fired back. Caught in the crossfire, a number of people in the lobby screamed for their lives. Soft jazz continued to play in the background.

It was July 7, 1994. Thirty hours earlier, inmate Vladimir Santana da Silva, had been walking down a dark corridor inside Presídio Central — Porto Alegre’s main prison and one of the largest in Brazil. The hulking, bad-tempered 28-year old prisoner (whose nickname Sarará da Vó ironically translates to “grandma’s boy”) was returning to his cell after undergoing a physical therapy session for a broken elbow at the prison’s infirmary, located within the prison complex. When the inmate spotted a prison nun in the corridor, he begged her to arrange an urgent meeting between him and the infirmary director, Dr. Claudinei dos Santos. “We have an urgent matter to discuss”, he insisted. The nun agreed. And as soon as Sarará da Vó was face-to-face with Dr. Santos, his hands free, he drew a zip gun from inside his arm sling and pressed it against the doctor’s chest.

As if on cue, another inmate stormed into the doctor’s office, holding a guard hostage at gunpoint. It was Fernando Rodolfo Dias, or Fernandinho (“Little Fernando”). He was in prison for bank robbery, drug dealing and embezzlement. Sarará da Vó was expecting him. Fernandinho was often in the infirmary seeking medical treatment for illnesses related to his HIV, but on this day he surprised the staff by taking over the weapon from a distracted guard, subduing him and heading to meet his friend Sarará da Vó. Inside Dr. Santo’s office, the prisoners acknowledged each other’s presence with a smile and proceeded to look for something in the couch, taking out pillows and seat cushions. Dr. Santos watched attentively. The inmates cheered as they found two hidden weapons and several rounds of ammunition. The doctor could not believe his eyes: how did they know where he had hidden his firearms?

Photos by Daniel Marenco

Around the same time, in the triage room, 33-year old prisoner Pedro Ronaldo Inácio, or Bugigão, was receiving medical attention after throwing up blood — the symptom of an “illness” that, he later admitted, he had faked by swallowing blood extracted with a needle from his arm. Suddenly, the inmate drew a handgun from under his shirt and threatened to kill nurses and doctors if they attempted to run away. Bugigão, or “Big guy”(finally, a nickname that made sense!), was serving time for aggravated assault, rape and bank robbery. As he took charge of the room, other inmates stood up and followed his lead, taking over the guard’s weapons. (According to a controversial policy, all of Presídio Central’s guards were instructed to carry lethal weapons inside the facility.) Soon, the same group of prisoners was breaking into the guard’s personal lockers, ransacking weapons and ammunition.

Photos by Daniel Marenco

Sarará da Vó, Fernandinho, Bugigão and other prisoners took a total of 27 staff members hostages on that day. In spite of their anxiety and nervousness, the inmates were able set up camp on the second floor of the infirmary. This was not a coincidence: from where they stood, a long corridor led to the prison’s front gate and their freedom. As soon as news about the prison riot had spread inside the jail, public prosecutor André Luiz Villarinho arrived on the scene to assess the situation. The prisoners proceeded to make their first demand: they wanted a couple of inmates from another ward of Presídio Central to join them in the infirmary, or they would kill Dr. Santos. They specifically wanted Carlos Jefferson Souza Santos or Bicudo (“Long Beak”), a 23-year-old criminal who was serving time, among other reasons, for taking a young woman hostage inside a video-rental store. Public prosecutor Villarinho, who unexpectedly found himself in the position of negotiator, decided to make the deal. In exchange, the inmates released one hostage, a staff secretary who was so nervous that she had passed out.

Once Bicudo joined the group, he immediately became their leader and spokesperson. He proceeded to make a second, bolder demand: they wanted two inmates from another maximum-security prison named PASC to join them in Presídio Central.

Melara was serving 65 years for bank robberies and for actually escaping prison on several occasions. He was also the leader of the area’s first mafia-like organization, Falange (or “Phalanx”), although he always denied the organization’s existence. The other inmate was Celestino Linn, 37 years old, Melara’s close friend and crime partner. He was serving 30 years for armed robbery and aggravated assault. Together, in 1983, the criminal duo had successfully freed a prisoner who was being transported between jails on a bus. During the operation, they shot and killed two police officers.

The public prosecutor realized that he was way out of his league in making such a serious decision and contacted the state’s governor at the time, Alceu Collares. The governor decided to create a task force with members of the police, the judicial system, the state legislature, Brazil’s Order of Attorneys (OAB) and the state’s Superintendence for Prison Services (SUSEPE). By nightfall, the group had set up camp at Presídio Central. The governor gave them complete authority to make decisions, possibly because he wanted to protect his own political reputation in case the negotiation took a dark turn. Marcos Rolim, a member of the task force who was also a state legislator at the time, volunteered to speak directly with the inmates about their demands. The 34-year-old was a human rights activist and was accustomed to advocating for prisoners’ rights. But around 2 a.m., Rolim was taken back by what he heard from the inmates: not only did they want Melara and Linn to join them, but they also demanded that three getaway cars be parked in front of Presídio Central to enable their escape as soon as their companions arrived.


After some sleep, the task force considered their options. They could send officers into the infirmary to shoot down the would-be runaways. “But we quickly discarded that alternative,” Rolim told me recently. The former legislator now holds a PHD in sociology, with a focus on violent youth. “The shooting would have killed dozens of people. Not only the prisoners in question and the infirmary staff, but also other inmates who were in the building just getting medical attention. Our only choice was to accept the terms of the negotiation.”


Finally, as the sun set, Rolim made the one-hour drive to the maximum-security prison with a colleague to pick up Melara and Linn. The criminals were waiting: they had been following news updates on the radio and knew that they were on their way. Melara was ecstatic. He had been orchestrating this prison break for two months now and all was going according to plan.

Other prisoners cheered him on. Arriving at Presídio Central, Melara and Linn joined the rioting prisoners in the infirmary. In exchange for complying with their second demand, Rolim was able to negotiate the release of seven female hostages. The state legislator later confessed that he had been terrified that the inmates were going to start raping the women hostages out of frustration — or plain boredom.

The next step was to decide about the third demand: should they give the prisoners getaway cars? The task force opted to comply, but secretly they planned to sabotage the escapees’ plan: the police would fiddle with the mechanics of the cars before handing them over to the prisoners, so that they would not get very far. Also, the cars would be set up with tracking devices. The plan was to let the criminals think that they had escaped, while following them from a distance by helicopter. As soon as the fugitives let the hostages go, the police would close in and catch them.

After several hours, at 9:05 pm, all of the preparations were complete. The cars were placed in front of the prison complex, and the escapees and their hostages moved down the infirmary’s corridor towards the exit. Police officers and task force members watched the scene attentively. Reporters broadcasted every move live on the radio. The prisoners and their captives walked together as a group and wore blankets over their heads, so it was impossible for police snipers to distinguish who was a criminal and who was a hostage. Just outside Presídio Central, some of them entered the vehicles , which then took off in a hurry, one after another. But in a departure from the initial plan, the police proceeded to shoot at the cars and chase right after them. “A police chief gave the order to follow them closely, out of rage,” Rolim explained. “But it was a very bad call — he jeopardized the safety of the hostages and of all citizens of Porto Alegre”, he said.

The warning for “emergency mode” was broadcasted over the radio and TV. After all, there were dangerous criminals on the loose. Families were instructed to lock their doors, drivers parked their cars and store owners closed shop early.

The runaway cars headed in different directions, followed closely by the police. One of the cars went east, but it did not get very far. With a flat tire, the car soon slowed down and stopped in the middle of a dirt road. Instead of giving themselves up, the fugitives decided to shoot at the oncoming police officers from inside the vehicles. The police fired back. In the confusion, two hostages managed to escape, miraculously uninjured. A third hostage remained in the car and was struck by 11 bullets — and also, miraculously, managed to survive. But the three prisoners who were inside the vehicle were killed. Coroners later found a total of 21 gunshots in their bodies.

The second getaway car headed north . After a few kilometers, the inmate behind the wheel, Chardozinho, crashed the vehicle into a lamp post while trying to lose the police pursuing him. After the accident, Chardozinho, apparently unharmed, fled by foot towards a shopping mall. A mall cop noticed his strange behavior and ordered him to lie down on the floor and surrender (this cop has since become a hero in his field). The other two fugitives who were in the vehicle fled towards a nearby woods and were not found by the police until weeks later.

The third and last runaway car broke down not far from Presídio Central. The escapee who was driving, Bicudo, panicked and fled on foot. Ten days later he was shot and killed by the police while trying to rob a bank. The other three fugitives — good friends Melara and Linn, along with Fernandinho — resisted, engaging in crossfire with police officers. Dr. Santos, who had been held hostage inside the vehicle, was hit by a bullet in his back and pushed out of the vehicle. He was left paraplegic. Another bullet hit a police officer who was approaching the vehicle. He died on the spot. The remaining fugitives realized that they needed to get out or they, too, would get shot. So they took over a vehicle belonging to the press — which was following the ordeal closely — and continued their escape through the city with three hostages — two women and a man. They exchanged cars twice until they eventually hopped inside a red cab.

After driving through the hotel lobby, the cab driver opened the vehicle’s door and ran towards the police, his hands in the air, begging the cops not to shoot him. The three fugitives also stepped out of the car but made their way to the back of the lobby, protecting themselves from incoming bullets by using their hostages as shields. The hotel was packed on that weekend. It was hosting a psychiatry conference about depression, with 50 of the most prominent doctors in Brazil in attendance. After a day of intense medical lectures, the doctors were having dinner in the conference room when they heard a noise of shattered glass coming from the lobby. A few seconds later, they watched three armed men enter the conference room. The doctors interrupted their dinners and hid under the tables.

Melara and Fernandinho took no notice of the frightened physicians and hurried up to the bar on the mezzanine level, dragging along two of their hostages, both women. Linn, for his part, backed into a corner of the conference room and improvised a barricade with a few tables. He had lost his male hostage, and, for bargaining purposes, grabbed a couple of doctors as new hostages. It did not take long for the police to storm into the room and slowly work their way towards Linn by crawling on the floor. When they were close enough, they shot him in the face. But Linn was lucky: the bullet only scraped his head. Subsequently, he was escorted out of the hotel by proud officers, like hunters holding a large prey. Two days later, though, his luck ran out: Linn was found in a hospital bed with four gunshots, murdered.

Melara and Fernandinho sat on the mezzanine for another thirteen hours. They took a third person hostage , a female hotel secretary. But they had very little water, food and ammunition. Finally, exhausted and at their breaking point, the fugitives gave themselves up when a judge, who was in charge of the negotiations, said that the Seleção, Brazil’s national soccer team, was about to play for the quarterfinals of the World Cup, and he did not want to miss the game. The criminals agreed to leave the hotel on two conditions: they wanted bulletproof vests to wear on their way out, and they wanted to be taken to the maximum-security prison, where they would be safe ; they were terrified that the guards at Presídio Central would execute them for causing so much trouble. Maybe they were right. Melara lived until 2005, when he was killed after being involved in a power struggle. Fernandinho died of an illness in 2008.

The forty-eight-hour-long prison break, understandably, was the source of great alarm and attention throughout the city. For weeks, it was all the media talked about. Some people criticized the task force, which had agreed to all of the criminals’ demands. Others believed that the authorities had no choice but to give into the criminals’ wishes. “But mostly, everyone was absolutely terrified by the fact that the most dangerous criminals of the area were able to pull this off from inside the prison”, said Rolim.


Seven months later, Brazilians forgot all about their troubles and took to the streets to celebrate Carnaval. At the same time, on February 27, 1995, a group of inmates in Presídio Central was busy digging a hole through a cell wall using handmade cutting tools. As soon as the hole was large enough, and in broad daylight, forty-five prisoners exited the building unnoticed and climbed onto the roof. They were led by a 24-year-old prisoner named Porquinho, or “Little pig”. He was serving 31 years for armed robbery. From the rooftop, the prisoners used ropes of braided bed sheets to climb down the outer wall of the prison and into freedom. “They looked like dozens of spider-men,” said an eyewitness to local newspaper Zero Hora. At least one of the escapees was not able to hold onto the rope during the 8-meter climb down and fell to the street, breaking both of his legs. He was left behind by the others.

Two hundred police officers were sent out to hunt down the runaways on foot while a helicopter and a small plane canvassed the area. The escapees were easy to spot — their clothes were dirty and ragged. And since the police had orders to capture them no matter what, when they did find them, they proceeded to shoot at the escapees’ legs to stop them from running away. Some of the fugitives were armed with handguns and shot back. But by the end of the day, 23 prisoners had been brought back to prison. Many others were captured in the following week.

Since its completion in 1959, Presidio Central had never quite worked according to the original plan. The state-run jail was supposed to have a sophisticated infrastructure, but the government ran out of money before construction was finished and built only half of what was on the blueprint. The prison was inaugurated anyway in 1962, consisting of five three-story buildings and the capacity for 660 inmates.

Over time, the jail became more and more overcrowded, to the point where the prisoner population exceeded by four times its capacity. Inmates grew restless. In the eighties, they found a way to express their frustration by carrying out carefully planned riots and prison breaks. “Presídio Central began to function like a pressure cooker,” explained Rolim. “When inmates could no longer handle the prison’s conditions, they would explode. This led to the government taking certain measures to make things better, and the pressure would go down. But only to rise again.” The inmates had been following the example of past prisoners in larger urban centers, such Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Inmates in these areas had learned a thing or two about structure after sharing prison cells with political prisoners during the military dictatorship, from 1964 to 1985. After this experience, they created Brazil’s first prison gangs. During mid-1980’s, when the illegal drug market began to boom — and because of which there was suddenly a lot more money to be made in crime — the criminal world realized that maintaining organized groups could be useful beyond prison walls. One of the main gangs to take that step was PCC (First Command of the Capital), which was founded to fight oppression inside the São Paulo penitentiary system, but with time became the largest criminal organization in Brazil, with a membership numbering almost 10,000, according to São Paulo state’s judicial system. “Gangs in other areas of Brazil reproduce the same dynamic of Rio and São Paulo”, explains sociologist Rodrigo Ghiringhelli de Azevedo, an expert in social analysis of violence and public safety. “The difference is that criminals in each state organized around their own rivalries and neighborhoods”.

Photos by Daniel Marenco

In 1995, after organized crime groups carried out two dramatic prison escapes in seven months in Porto Alegre, the general feeling was that the state had completely lost control of the prison. Citizens felt extremely insecure. In a letter to local newspaper Zero Hora published in March of that year, a reader named Silvana Dorneles demanded some answers from authorities. “How can a prison with more than one thousand inmates have only one guard securing the outer wall? How do prisoners have access to guns? How do they escape without being seen?” she wondered. The situation was unacceptable. To make matters even worse, the prisoner Porquinho, who led the carnaval prison break, gave an interview to local reporters when he was captured, saying that “it was very easy to escape Presídio Central”. People were furious. Something had to change.

State governor Antônio Brito felt the pressure. He had been recently inaugurated, but was forced to address the matter in his first month at the job. Brito called the press and made an announcement: he was going to take dramatic measures to end, once and for all, the problems of Porto Alegre’s jail. The plan was to build 10 new, mid-sized prisons in nearby cities and ultimately tear down the facility. In the meantime, Presídio Central would be handed over to the Military Police — a Brazilian police force responsible for maintaining public order through the use of military principles. The Military Police was known for being tough: their core values were order and discipline. They were well-trained. They were fearless. And they had a well-established rank and file that could help to organize the prison’s system. In the beginning, the plan worked. The new officers were very successful in taming down the prisoners by force. The city felt safer and the criticism towards the state government diminished. But months turned into years, and new correctional facilities were never built. The Military Police continued to remain in charge of Presídio Central well beyond the original plan, and long-term issues festered.

The 30-year-old prison was in need of a renovation. Infrastructure problems received little attention, if they received any. Prisoners complained about everyday issues (like a broken shower, for instance) by banging improvised tools inside their cells until the building shook like it was going to fall apart. The Military Police feared not only that the building would collapse, but that the prisoners were going to set themselves free. There were simply not enough guards to contain the crowd. The officers came to the conclusion that the only way to maintain order was to negotiate directly with the prisoners.

Someday in 1997, high-ranking Military Police officer at Presídio Central called prisoner Valmir Pires in for a meeting. Pires, a very articulate inmate, was serving 12 years for auto theft and armed robbery. Unlike many of his jail mates, Pires had always been friendly with the guards. The chief officer showed him an empty floor of building C and made him an offer. Pires would be able to live there with other prisoners that he trusted and have complete control over the group. The police would not enter the grounds without his permission and would not monitor what they did inside. Pires would even receive the keys to the cells. In exchange, the inmate had to promise that the new group would not try to escape or start riots in the facility. Also, they had keep the area clean and organized. After all, if they were going to take over, they would also have to take on some responsibilities.

Partnering with the criminals was a bold move, but it was necessary in the eyes of the Military Police. The deal would help to keep the Military Police in charge of the facility indefinitely. Even though it was a difficult job, by this time the military organization had grown used to having such power and the extra pay that came from working inside the jail. The deal would also create a new organized group among the prisoners and limit the power of an increasingly powerful group named Manos (Bros), led by legendary criminal Dilonei Melara (who had gained even more prestige among criminals after the 1994 escape). Pires accepted the deal. His gang decide to call themselves Brasas (Embers). Soon after, another organized group of prisoners formed spontaneously: they named themselves Os Abertos (The Open Ones).

Three rival gangs were born.

“Death is garanteed”, says the blade. | Photo by Daniel Marenco

In a way, the deal served its purpose. Since 1998, there have been no prison break attempts in Presídio Central . But the surge of gangs brought a new set of problems to the state government. By the turn of the century the number of violent deaths at Presídio Central had escalated to an all-time high of 30 per year. Inmates were turning up dead inside the facility, killed by handguns, stoning, stabbing or beating. “There was basically a war going on between these groups”, says Renato Dorneles, a reporter who covered many gruesome killings for the newspaper. “They were fighting for power and turf inside the prison”. The number of deaths plummeted to 2 per year in 2005, when Melara, leader of the Manos gang, was killed. He was shot five times in the face by an unknown rival during his last escape from prison. The sudden peace inside Presídio Central, therefore, was not a coincidence. Without the old leader, a new generation of prisoners realized that it would be best if they stopped fighting among each other and focused on taking advantage of the power given to them by the Military Police. “They became more organized and began to respect one another’s space inside the jail”, explained Dorneles. “They realized that staying in war was bad for business”.

Since Governor Brito’s plan to demolish Presídio Cental did not move forward, the issue was left to his successor, Olivio Dutra, who took office in 1999. Dutra chose to make some much-needed internal renovations to the prison’s infrastructure. For starters, he closed down the infirmary section of Presídio Central, where the 1994 prison break took place. The section was transformed into a new building with cells and, for a while, resolved the prison’s overcrowding issue. But since the prison population in Brazil increases at a staggering rate — faster than Brazil’s general population — the solution was short-lived. In 2003, a new governor, Germano Rigotto, had no choice but to go back to the original plan to create new prisons and shut down Presídio Central: “We are prepared to create 8,914 vacancies in new prison facilities in the state, which will cost us a total of R$ 170 million reais”, he said in an interview to local newspaper Zero Hora in 2006. “The initial goal is to accommodate 2,600 new inmates by the end of this year”. The deadline was not met and the problem was left to yet another governor: Yeda Crucius. It 2008, she was clear about her intentions: “The decision to tear down Presídio Central has been made and we will move forward with it”. Again, she did not follow through with her promise, instead inaugurating four new buildings at Presídio Central, raising the total of buildings to ten. It was a much cheaper solution — although temporary.


Roberto Silva, a 32-year-old, slightly overweight white man, was greeted inside cell 39F by a fierce-looking prisoner with a bundle of keys and a large knife hanging from his waistband. The man explained how things worked in Presídio Central: the Military Police guarded the outside walls. But on the inside, the prisoners were in charge. Therefore, Silva had to follow their rules. He looked around at his new home. Three hundred inmates were housed in a long corridor, walking freely in and out of open prison cells. His own small cell had eight cement bunk beds, and approximately 20 inmates were assigned to them. Many had to sleep on the floor. The bathroom consisted of a hole in the ground behind two half-walls.

Roberto Silva had never been arrested before that date, October 13, 2014. Actually, this is not his real name. When I interviewed him in his humble, one-story house in the surroundings of the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, Silva asked me to use an alias because he is awaiting trial and feared that publication of an interview might influence a judge’s decision. “This is not the life that I planned for myself,” he added, sitting on the couch next to his wife. Silva was raised by his grandparents in a lower-middle-class household near the Brazilian border with Uruguay. He graduated from high school, completed an IT certification training course and did a stint in the army. At 19 years of age, he moved closer to Rio Grande do Sul state’s capital, Porto Alegre, in search of better job opportunities. After holding several temporary positions, he eventually landed a stable job as a forklift operator for a GM affiliate.

What got him into trouble was smoking pot. Even though marijuana use is illegal in Brazil, Silva had smoked up to four joints a day since he was about 14 years old. “l never had problems buying the drug for personal use”, Silva revealed. “But one day, I purchased a little extra for a friend, and when I went to give him his share, a police car pulled up.” When he was arrested, Silva had in his possession 7 small packages of marijuana, which were worth about 300 reais (approximately 60 British pounds or 95 U.S. dollars). At the initial court appearance, a judge ruled that he had been dealing drugs. And even though Silva had no criminal record, the judge decided that he should stay in preventive incarceration until trial — which could take up to a year. “I just thought: my life is over,” he told me.

Once he arrived at Presídio Central, Silva was asked in which section (or “gallery” in prison slang) he wanted to live. There are twenty-four galleries spread throughout the facility. And each one is coordinated by an organized crime group. Since the 1990’s, the number of gangs inside the prison has increased significantly. The Manos and the Abertos are still going strong. The Brasas had renamed themselves Unidos Pela Paz (United for Peace). And new groups were created based on neighborhood affiliations: Bala na cara (Bullet to the Face), Territoriais (Territorials), and Farrapos (Tatters). Other groups have their own sections due to safety reasons: transvestites, homosexuals, domestic violence agressors, pedofiles, rapists, evangelicals, first time offenders and inmates who are friendly with the guards are not well seen by the their jail mates. Also, inmates with a higher degree (who make up a tiny percentage of the prison’s population) are also kept separate.


In total, there are 4,193 inmates occupying 29,000 square meters — more than double the facility’s capacity.

And there is no sign that the overcrowding will diminish: on average, 59 new inmates enter Presídio Central every day, while only 54 leave. According to statistics from 2015, the majority of newcomers have between 18–24 years of age, did not complete high school, self-identify as white, and, just like Silva, were sent to prison as a preventive measure and to await trial for drug trafficking.

Silva was in shock to learn how much power the prisoners had acquired inside the facility. Each one of these galleries had a prisoner-run administration. “It works like a mayor’s office,” Silva explained. “There is a leader that they call Plantão (or “On call”, in English) and he has about 30 secretaries. Each secretary is responsible for a job inside the gallery, such as gatekeeper, cell manager, and food server. They are extremely organized, and they all wear knives on their waists so that you know who is in charge.” The mayor of each gallery has the most amount of power. He makes everyday decisions, such as: when to turn off the lights at nightime, how to settle disputes among prisoners, or when the cell gates should remain open (although some galleries are in poor shape and there are no cell gates). But more importantly, the mayor is the main point of contact between the members of the criminal organization who are inside prison and the ones who are outside. “Nowadays it makes no difference (for a criminal organization), if you are inside or outside of jail. It works like a network”, says Rodrigo Ghiringhelli de Azevedo, expert in public safety. “Both parts work together and remain in constant contact through cell phones, or by sending information through lawyers and family members”.

As I waited to interview Sidinei Brzuska, a judge from Porto Alegre’s Criminal Court who acts as a liaison between the Military Police and the prisoners, about ten gallery leaders, or “Plantão” were inside his office. They were having a meeting — which happens regularly — to discuss the functioning of the facility. It is the responsibility of these leader to request judicial and medical assistance for inmates of their galleries, object to prison transfers, and arrange for certain goods to enter the facility — such as TV sets, stoves and fans. These are the perks that a prisoner gets for being part of such organizations. But on this day, the mayors also had a formal complaint: they were not happy with the way that new correctional officers were treating them prisoners. “The guards were being a little too rough with the inmates, and that is unacceptable to them”, Brzuska told me as we began our interview. He then admitted that he would address the issue with the guards.

His job, he admitted, is to keep prisoners happy so that the the pot does not boil over. The problem is that organized crime leaders have gained so much bargaining power inside Presídio Central that they are essentially free to engage in several illegal activities without being disturbed by the guards, and this is where they cash in, helping to economically support crime organizations headquartered outside of the prison walls. Among the most shocking — and profitable — of these activities is a black market in which they sell food, drugs, weapons, favors, cell phones and all sorts of items to inmates. “I used to buy pot all the time,“ Silva revealed. “They sold cocaine, pot and crack on a platter, even on visitation days, and often guards watched the transactions without interfering.” In December 2014, this practice became public when a video was published showing dozens of inmates waiting in line to snort cocaine inside one of the galleries. The video was sent by a source inside the prison to reporter Renato Dorneles, who works for the local newspaper Diário Gaúcho.

According to Judge Brzuska, drugs, cellphones and handguns, among other illegal items, are smuggled into Presídio Central by family members on visitation days. An average of 230,000 people visit the inmates each year — mostly wives, mothers and sisters. It is quite an event. They start lining up around 3am outside Presídio Central, in order to guarantee that they will enter by mid-morning. It is a long process to get through security. Bags have to be scanned — like in an airport. The women are allowed to bring in food and hygiene products, but often they are caught smuggling small packages of drugs or cellphones inside pieces of bread, sneakers, or childrens toys — just to cite some of the most common. The next step is to walk through a body scanner in your underwear. Although it is not always effective. “I watched women take their pants off, squat and insert drugs into their vaginas while waiting to go through the body scanner”, says Silva’s wife, who used to visit him twice a week. After going through security, visitors spend all day with their locked-up loved ones, circulating freely on Presídio Central’s patio and galleries. It is also in these occasions that conjugal visits occur. Gallery leaders hang bedsheets on the ceiling of certain cells, splitting them into two rooms. In each one, couples have 15 minutes to have sex- on the clock. Of course you can have more time, as long as you pay a fee.

In December 2014, Brzuska and the Military Police attempted to regain some control of the smuggling situation by introducing a high tech body scanner in which visitors don’t even have to take their clothes off. Since it has been in place, authorities have apprehended a large amount of drugs on their way in. But the illegal items continue to enter the facility.


“Family members and crime associates now throw packages over the jail’s outer walls,” said Brzuska. Also, guards have found rats running around wearing necklaces made of crack cocaine and mice with packages of powdered cocaine sewn into their bellies.

At the same time, it is suspected that some guards might have their own agreements with prisoners. In 2013, a guard was caught with several cellphones, half a kilo of pot and many rocks of crack cocaine in his locker. “They will always find a way, crime leaders are relentless,” says Brzuska. After ilegal items enter the facility, it is not easy to spot them. Military Police conducts random gallery sweeps once a week inside the galleries. But prisoners have so many resources that they have even used cement to hide items inside the walls. It is hard to see the fresh cement because the walls are already in bad shape, and because inmates tend to cover cell walls with colorful bed sheets, as if they were wall paper.

In addition to selling drugs and cell phones, organized crime groups also make their money by maintaining a canteen inside each gallery, in which inmates buy all types of products, from laundry detergent to crackers. Inmates have to shop, since the only thing that the state government provides them is with some food- but it is not enough for everyone, and it “tastes like crap”, according to Silva.In one of their boldest moves inside Presídio Central, gallery leaders have established that they are the only ones allowed to purchase items from the prison’s commissary. They then resell these items at the gallery’s canteen for four times the purchase price. The mayors keeps part of the profit, but the heads of the organization take the larger cut. “The truth is that, for prisoners who are in charge of Presídio Central, it is great to be there,” said reporter Dorneles. “They make more money inside than they would on the outside. Also, they are entitled to all sorts of perks. They have their own beds, plasma TVs, freezers, and as many drugs as they want.”

Other inmates do not have a leadership role inside the galleries, but are essential for criminal organizations because they continue to work — and make a profit — from inside the prison. Again, the big bosses take a cut on anything that happens inside. Fernando Marques, a 36-year-old prisoner who was serving 104 years for armed robbery, was one of these working men. After being arrested, Marques continued doing business as usual without ever leaving cell 211, located in Building D, profiting at least 5 thousand reais per month. This is how he did it: In one of his schemes, Marques used a cell phone to place two advertisements in the local newspaper: one was a job posting for a secretary; the other placed an apartment for rent. He would then hire a secretary (who never saw a paycheck) and ask her to pick up apartment keys at a real estate company. Her next job was to show the place to prospective renters who had answered the renting advertisement.

Once renters showed interest in the apartment, they were told to pay a month worth of fees. Only later they found out that the apartment did not, in fact, belong to the man who they had been in contact with over the phone. “He fooled many people until we caught him”, said Police Commissioner Carmem Regio from behind her desk at the police station. “And we only found out that he was inside Presídio Central because we traced his phone number, and he was always in the exact same location — right where the jail is located”, she said. Once the crime was discovered, a judge issued an arrest warrant for Marques, even though he was already in jail. As a result, the criminal was transferred to the state’s maximum security prison (PASC), but his lawyer has formally requested his return to Presídio Central on several occasions. So far, judges have denied such a request.


For Dorneles, this is a classic example of how Presídio Central is “a sham of a jail”. “There is no isolation, really, because they are still in touch with the outside world due to cell phones. There is no crime prevention, because they continue to sell drugs and commit crimes. And there is no rehabilitation during their time inside; in fact, they sometimes come out worse than they went in.” If the prisoners were already a part of the organized crime, inside the prison they take on much more important roles which they maintain once they are released. And if they were not a member initially- they end up becoming a member one way or another. The most common way that the criminal organizations find new recruits is when the prisoners (or his family) does not have the means to pay for everything that he needs to survive on the inside — from food to mattresses. The bill can add up to 300 reais per week, (approximately 60 British pounds or 95 U.S. dollars). In these cases, the inmate is ‘adopted’ by the organized crime. 
And on his way out, he has a debt to pay.


On the other hand, the prison fails at a more basic level: human rights. Not only does the common prisoner have to endure overcrowded cells, but also buildings that are falling apart and infested with rats. The problem has beenn agravated as prisoners took control and the state government began investing less and less in the facility. Today, prisoners are the ones who have to take care of maintenance, independently, as if it was their house — from cleaning the floors to buying and exchanging light bulbs. But there is a limit to what they can do. “Once, on a visitation day, I was on the patio and fecal waste started flowing through a crack on the building’s wall,” remembered Silva. “My wife and mother were visiting and I felt very embarrassed,” he said. According to Dorneles, it is a vicious cycle. The state government doesn’t invest in Presídio Central because there is an understanding among many Brazilians that the government shouldn’t be spending money on criminals. “What people don’t understand,” Dorneles points out, “is that by not investing in Presídio Central, the government is helping to fuel organized crime and criminal activity.”

In 2009, Brazil’s legislative branch conducted a long investigation (named CPI, or parliamentary committee inquiry) into the prison system in the country. The inquiry took place after it became public that Brazil had the fourth largest prison population in the world, with an estimated 422,590 people behind bars, exceeding the official capacity by 34% (it has since leapt to 38% over capacity). After eight months of investigation, and having visited most of the prisons in the country, the committee found that Presídio Central was the worst of them all — a “dungeon”, according to the report.

In the report’s conclusion, the committee asked for charges to be brought against seven people linked to Presídio Central, among them Eden Moraes, the prison director at the time. Eventually, all charges were dropped, but there were huge repercussions in the national media. (Recently, federal legislators have been planning to conduct another CPI of the prison system in Brazil. They plan on revisiting the ten worst prisons in the country, starting later this year.)

Another formal complaint was made public in 2012, when an inspection was conducted on the premises of Presídio Central and found that there was considerable damage to the facility’s infrastructure. The inspection was ordered by the local branches of the Order of Attorneys of Brazil (OAB-RS) and the Regional Council of Engineering and Agronomy (Crea-RS) out of concern for the conditions of the facility. The final report pointed to the lack of a sewage system, corrosion and cracks on the walls, exposed wiring and the proliferation of all sorts of bugs and rodents. The facility was at critical risk of falling apart, the specialists warned. These buildings could not be saved, they said.

In January 2013, the issue was brought to international attention. The Order of Attorneys of Brazil (OAB-RS) joined forces with other local entities, such as the Judges Association of state Rio Grande do Sul (Ajuris), and made a formal complaint to the Inter-american Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of American States. The idea was for the international organization to pressure Brazil’s Federal Government into taking some sort of action. In 2014, OAB filed another complaint with the same purpose — this time at the United Nations Human Rights Council (the complaint also concerned the prison of Pedrinhas, in the state of Maranhão). “How can Brazil bid for a permanent membership on the UN Security Council while it does not follow the United Nation’s guidelines regarding human right’s violations?”, said OAB’s general secretary in the state, Ricardo Breier, during an interview. The complaints had some repercussion: in March 2013, the Organization of American States (OAS) sent a letter to Brazil’s federal government asking for urgent measures to improve the situation. President Dilma Rousseff’s aides responded by saying that the government was “making improvements”. But not much has changed to date.

Airton Michels, not a particularly athletic person, swung a sledge hammer with his right hand and easily made a sizeable hole in the prison’s brick wall. The crowd cheered him on. “We cannot allow a place like this to exist anymore,” he announced on that day, October 14, 2014. Michels, then the state’s secretary of public safety in 2014, had proudly gathered the press at Presídio Central to begin the tearing-down of the facility, following through with the promise of then governor Tarso Genro — the latest governor to make this promise in twenty years. The goal was to destroy Building C in 30 days, then Building D soon after, and to continue the demolition until the facility was completely torn down. At the time the cost of the whole operation was estimated to be 1.1 million reais (approximately 230,000 British pounds or 350,000 U.S. dollars).

Having fulfilled his symbolic duty to start the demolition of the jail, Michels handed the sledge hammer to the construction crew in charge and proceeded to give interviews to the press. He explained to reporters that by the end of 2014, there would be only 500 inmates left in the facility, out of the nearly 4,000 that lived there. “We are slowly emptying Presídio Central, sending prisoners to new facilities that are being built as we speak in nearby cities. In fact, 370 prisoners have already been transferred in order for this demolition to begin,” he announced.

Most of Presídio Central’s inmates were to be transferred to a modern, rehabilitation-focused prison for 2415 inmates located in Canoas — a city 19 km from Porto Alegre. However, the facility was not ready by the end of 2014 due to several problems: there were issues with the bidding process of the company responsible for building the facility, there was no money to build the access road to the new prison, and, once it was finally built, the prison had deficient electric wiring, which needs to be completely redone. The construction of another three prisons that were supposed to replace Presídio Central faced similar issues involving bureaucracy, lack of funding and poor management. To this day, none of the facilities have been opened. As a result, the 370 inmates that had left Presídio Central for the beginning of the demolition had to be transferred back to the prison — except now Building C had been demolished, making the facility reach a record number of overcrowding in its entire existence.

As the situation reaches unsustainable levels, the prison’s administration and the state and federal governments have engaged in a political blame game. Judge Brzuska blames the state government for precipitating the demolition of building C. “It was a political move. The governor’s term was coming to an end and he just wanted to show that he was following through with his promise to solve the problem”, he said from inside his office at Presídio Central. The federal government, in turn, blamed the state government, claiming that it systematically fails to execute projects that are already funded. “In 2012, we were forced to cancel funding for five new incarceration facilities in the state, because the state government showed no motivation in building them”, said Renato Campos De Vitto, director of the National Department of Prisons (Depen), in a meeting that took place recently in Porto Alegre. The state government defends itself, saying that it is working hard to build new prisons in the state. For Eugênio Couto Terra, president of the state’s judiciary organization (Ajuris), both state and federal government are at fault. “The federal government doesn’t always have the money that they claim”, he said. “At the same time, the state is extremely slow in managing these funds — mostly because the governor’s term ends every four years, and with a new governor, there are new priorities.”

Little by little, day by day, Roberto Silva, the man who had been arrested for carrying 7 small packages of pot, adapted to the prison system and came to be well seen by the prisoners of his gallery, including the mayor. Initially, Silva was praised because he knew how to cook rice, beans and chicken — useful skills inside a facility where the state-provided food is unedible. Soon, he was appointed as a mayor secretary: he would be in charge of his cell and the twenty-or-so inmates that were assigned to that space. After a few months, he was wearing a knife, welcoming new prisoners and explaining to them how things worked inside Presídio Central. As part of his promotion, Silva was granted a few perks: he was allowed to sleep by himself on a bed, and he used a cellphone to call his wife and mother. He said to have purchased the phone for 2500 reais, approximately 500 British pounds or 800 U.S. dollars inside.

Meanwhile, Silva’s wife, a schoolteacher, had become increasingly concerned about her husband.


“I didn’t want to visit him anymore. I didn’t want to see the faces of those other men. I didn’t want to be in this situation. I didn’t want to be so broke — because of all the money that he required inside. I never cried so much in my life”, she told me.

Her only hope was to hire Vladimir Amorim, a lawyer who, according to rumours at Presídio Central, could perform miracles for prisoners — and who, to her relief, allowed his clients pay in installments.

Lawyer Amorim was well-liked among inmates of the facility because he had been in their shoes. He came from a lower-middle-class family, and at age 25, was arrested in Presídio Central for shooting an acquaintance. “Everybody had a gun back then, and in the heat of an argument I shot the guy — but he lived, thank God”, he told me during an interview at a cafe. While he was inside Presídio Central, sleeping on the floor of Building D, itching from scabies, he observed his cellmates: “They were human beings, many wanted to live a better life, but they had no opportunity. Because they were poor, they had no access to decent legal counseling.” When Amorim was released on parole, he made himself a promise: that he was going to come back one day, but as a lawyer, to help those men. By the age 28, he had graduated from high school and was accepted at a university. Eight years later, after facing several financial difficulties, he finally graduated from law school.

Since Amorim started working, his main focus has been to help inmates like Silva, humble men who are arrested at Presídio Central for drug trafficking — which amounts to 76% of the prison’s population. “Often they were carrying small amounts of drugs for personal use. But they are still considered drug traffickers”, he stated. According to Amorim, judges are accustomed to make such a decision based social class and skin color.


“You can be carrying a certain amount of pot if you are wealthy and well educated. They will consider you a consumer and the penalty is minimal. However, if you have the same amount of pot and you are poor, black and live in the favelas, they will declare you a drug dealer. And you will go to prison”.

This tendency has gotten worse with Brazil’s new drug legislation, which broadens the definition of drug consumer and drug dealer, giving judges more decision power regarding sentences. The numbers are mind blowing: since 2005, when the legislation was put in place, Brazil’s prison population increased 66%, according to recent numbers released by the Brazilian Federal Government.

When Amorim took on Silva’s case, other lawyers had appealed for bail, unsuccessfully. Amorim decided to take Silva’s case to the last and highest possible court — the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF). And to everyone’s surprise, Supreme Court judge Luís Roberto Barroso not only decided on his favor, but used the case to take a stand on the issue. Barroso wrote five pages justifying why someone like Silva should not be in Presídio Central. One of the paragraphs reads:

“The current Brazilian prison system sends young, usually first offenders into incarceration, due to drug traffic of insignificant amounts of marijuana, in order to bring public order. What happens is quite the contrary. The degradation to which these detainees are subjected to in most prison establishments and the absence of internal separation between first and frequent offenders, as well as between temporary imprisonment and convicted felons, have turned prisons into actual ‘schools of crime’. Prisoners who have committed or are accused of having committed minor crimes come into contact with dangerous criminals, are brought into organized crime organizations and often return to committing crimes after they leave these prisons”.

On May 8, 2015, the Supreme Court judge ordered Silva to be released immediately. Inside Presídio Central, he was not expecting the good news. “I was so happy that I began to shout inside the gallery that I was leaving and was never coming back”, he said. He walked out the front door and hugged his wife for a long time. Now, rereading the Supreme Court decision in front of me, he gets emotional. “The judge was right. I was turning into a criminal. If I had stayed inside for a while longer, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I would probably have come out and killed the guy who asked me to buy drugs for him on the day that I was arrested. And then, there would be no turning back”, he said. After being released, Silva worked flipping burgers for a few months until he was rehired as a forklift operator. He tries to live a normal life, although he is still awaiting trial and lives in fear that he might just have to go back to prison. And Presídio Central could still be standing, ready to receive him with open arms.



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