Time to take Brazil back from violent crime

Prisoners in an overcrowded jail in Maranhao, Brazil. (photo Folhapress)

Prisoners in an overcrowded jail in Maranhao, Brazil. (photo Folhapress)

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The video was horrifying. Filmed at the Pedrinhas prison complex in São Luis, Maranhão, last month by inmates themselves, the film showed the legs of prisoners walking through puddles of water, the water becoming redder and redder as they approached the bodies of three other inmates that they had killed and decapitated. The video showed the heads of two of them resting on the chest of a third dead prisoner. On the soundtrack, one could hear the prisoners laughing and celebrating their victory.



It was the Folha de São Paulo newspaper that brought this gruesome video to the attention of Brazil this week when it published the video on its website. The paper said that the video was sent to it by the prison guards at Pedrinhas in an attempt to tell the world just how bad the conditions were at that prison. The latest wave of violence was the result of turf wars between rival gangs in the prison over the control of drug trafficking that goes on there.  In 2013, there were 60 deaths recorded in Pedrinhas, the result of inmates killing each other. The prison complex is overcrowded, currently housing 2,200 inmates in what was designed to hold only 1,700.  When security was tightened at the prison complex earlier this month, the criminals retaliated by ordering the burning of public buses in São Luis, which left a six year old girl dead and several injured.

Large amounts of poverty, a booming drug trade, wide availability of illegal and unregistered firearms and endemic corruption in all walks of Brazilian life means that the country is one of the most violent in the world.  According to Daniel Mack, a senior adviser the São Paulo-based Instituto Sou da Paz, there were over 47,000 homicides in Brazil in 2012, reaching 21 per 100,000 people, one of the highest rates in the world. As in other parts of the world, over 90 percent of the victims are young men between 18-30 years of age. According to Carta Capital magazine Brazil has the fourth largest prison population in the world, with nearly 550,000 prisoners.

This latest episode of violence in São Luis shocked many Brazilians because of the brutality and cruelty of the killers. The father of one of the victims Domingos Pereira Coelho, 58, told the Folha that he counted 180 wounds just on the front of 21-year-old son’s body when he went to the morgue to claim his body. “I watched the video to see what they did to my son. The pain of seeing how much my son had suffered is so much that I cannot describe it. The torture that my son went through before they decapitated him I would never wish on any animal, and not even on any of the criminals who did this to my son,” he told the newspaper.

The federal government has stepped in and moved 22 of the most dangerous criminals in the Pedrinhas complex to maximum security federal prisons across Brazil. The governor of Maranhão state, Roseana Sarney, the daughter of the former president José Sarney, has been widely criticized for promising to improve conditions at the prison, but with nothing to show for it. The federal attorney-general has officially asked the Supreme Court in Brasilia to approve a federal intervention at Maranhão’s jails, but he is unlikely to get approval.

Maranhão is one of the poorest states in Brazil, with a population of 6.57 million in 2010.  It has long been run by the Sarney family, who own much of the state’s land and run a business empire that includes TV stations, AM and FM radio stations and the state’s largest daily newspaper. Roseana, who is now 60, has been investigated for corruption several times, as well as her brother. Her father, José, who is now 83 and still active as a federal senator, was president from 1985 to 1990, a crucial transition time for Brazil as the country emerged from 20 years of military dictatorship to democracy. He oversaw the legalization of political parties and the end of censorship. Nowadays both he and his daughter are staunch political allies of the ruling PT-Workers Party, which led some to criticize the silence of President Dilma Rousseff on the violence in Maranhão.  Rousseff only broke her silence on Jan. 10, tweeting that she had been closely following events there and that she had sent both a contingent of the National Force (made up of military policemen and army soldiers) and the minister of justice to Maranhão.

Unfortunately this epidemic of violence is not confined to Maranhão. Similar outbreaks have occurred in prisons in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Parana and Santa Catarina. I blame a judicial system that is too soft on criminals. The death penalty has long been abolished, and no one can be imprisoned for more than 30 years, even if you killed several people in especially cruel ways. And most murderers get out long before their sentences are due to end due to overly lenient rules that allow prisoners with good behavior in prison to get conditional freedom after they’ve completed as little as one-fifth of their sentences. Revisions to the Brazilian Penal Code are being studied, and under the new rules that Congress must approve, prisoners will only be eligible to conditional parole after serving at least one-fourth of their sentences.

Too often we hear cries from human rights activists saying that rights of prisoners are being abused by being jammed in overcrowded jails and often languishing in holding cells for years before their trials begin. These are two things that must be corrected, but laws and punishments must be toughened in order to bring the current crime wave under control. In a society where criminals seem to have more rights than their victims, murderers will continue to kill people knowing that the most they will get is six years in jail. And in jails, I might add, where criminals hold sway and from which they operate freely, bringing in drugs to sell, women to sleep with and cellphones with which to run their gangs on the outside. Brazilians have had enough of this impunity and are waiting for politicians with some guts to put an end to this.




No Hysteria Needed for Cold-Blooded Killers

THE news last week that three Filipinos had been convicted and sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for killing compatriots last year in Jeddah and then dumping their chopped up bodies in an empty lot, was reported as yet another “save the poor Filipinos in Saudi” story by ABS-CBN television.

Their report which, also aired here on The Filipino Channel, consisted solely of interviews in Pampanga with distraught relatives of the three condemned to death. Tears flowed aplenty along with allegations that they were innocent and that they had been tortured in jail to admit to the horrific crimes.

Lacking from the report, at least as far as I could understand, was any necessary context of explaining that the three convicts were part of a jueteng gang that had killed the other Filipinos in a battle over gambling turf. In that context, of the cold-blooded and nasty murders caused by greed for more money from an illegal gambling activity, how can anyone have sympathy for the killers? It was not a crime of passion, done in the heat of an argument. Neither was it accidental. It was premeditated murder of the worst kind, in which the bodies of the victims were chopped up into pieces.

When Saudi investigators found the bodies, they were so decomposed and in small pieces that it was impossible to identify which pieces belonged to which victim. That is why family members of the victims were flown in from the Philippines to give DNA samples that could be compared to that of the victims. Matches were found and this is how they could determine which body parts belonged to which victim.

All of this has been previously reported by Arab News, so I don’t know why ABS-CBN did not do a more balanced report on the sentencing of the accused. It was much easier I guess, and much more dramatic, to just interview the hysterical relatives of the convicted killers, then to actually get the other side of the story and present the complete picture of why these three guys were sentenced to death.

While I am not in favor of the death penalty, I really find it hard to have any sympathy for heartless killers, who chop the bodies up of their victims.

The three killers still have a chance of avoiding the death penalty under Shariah law if the families of the victims agree to forgive the killers and accept blood money as compensation. For this, the Philippine government will have to work hard for.
Beheadings Hurt Cause of Muslims

THE rash of beheadings by Muslim militants from Basilan in the Philippines to Afghanistan and Iraq is a disgusting practice that has nothing to do with Islam and only serves to give the religion and its followers the reputation of being barbaric.

While we in the Muslim world know that Islam is a religion of peace and common sense, the acts of a few deranged militants is besmirching the reputation of all Muslims.

The recent beheading of ten Marines in Basilan by militants linked to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Abu Sayyaf was a gruesome and wholly unnecessary act. The Marines were killed in a ten-hour gun battle with MILF fighters, so why was it necessary to then chop their heads off? If you ask the MILF they will deny having done it and instead will blame rogue elements of the MILF whom they claim are really Abu Sayyaf.

Basilan Rep. Wahab Akbar recently denounced what happened as “barbaric” and even told the story of how one dead soldier had his hand cut off when a militant could not get a ring off his hand.

Akbar has rightly called on the Philippine military to use local resources to go after the four alleged killers of the Marines, whom he named, instead of sending in a big contingent of troops that could cause havoc and put innocent civilian lives at risk.

I agree in principle with Akbar, but the problem is that too many Muslim politicians in Mindanao claim that they support the central government, but also wink at the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf, in an attempt at having it both ways.

I understand why the military must be wary and suspicious of these local politicians and of the MILF when they claim to be helping the government. So many times when some MILF soldiers have killed government troops in irregular situations or beheaded victims, then the MILF conveniently disowns them by claiming that they are rogue elements or even Abu Sayyaf members.

Muslim politicians should realize that they cannot have it both ways, i.e. claim to support Manila and then be in bed with the militants at the same time. That is a dangerous game to play, and one that is already being exposed by military officials fed-up with the never-ending cat-and-mouse games in Mindanao.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Sides have to be taken and sometimes that can be the hardest thing to do in the world.

Latest Tweets

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Newsletter Subscribe