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.