June 24, 2017, 8:13 am
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Grim vigil for families after Brazil prison massacre

By Ueslei Marcelino

MANAUS, Brazil. -- Brazil’s justice minister on Tuesday proposed an overhaul of the penal system a day after 56 inmates were massacred in the deadliest riot in two decades.

Meanwhile, hundreds of anguished relatives waited to learn if their loved ones were alive.

The minister, Alexandre de Moraes, said Brazil needed to improve conditions in its jails, which are home to an estimated 600,000 inmates, after visiting the prison in the jungle city of Manaus where violence erupted between rival drug gangs on Monday.

Meanwhile, hundreds of anguished relatives, hugging each other and sobbing uncontrollably, gathered outside the morgue in Manaus, waiting to discover if their loved ones were alive.

A morgue employee emerged from time to time to read from a list of those confirmed dead.

“Please help me bury my son,” cried Diana after learning that her son Ronei Pinheiro had been killed. “I never imagined something like this could happen.”

Officials were forced to rent a refrigerated truck to store bodies because there were so many dead, while medical examiners tried to identify the remains.

A war for control of the lucrative drug trade fueled the latest gang violence in Brazil’s understaffed prisons, raising concerns that Monday’s massacre could unleash a wave of reprisals.

Some 223 inmates from other prisons in Amazonas state were relocated to an abandoned jail in Manaus to protect them from rival gangs following the riot.

Moraes said the solution to Brazil’s chronic prison violence was not just to keep opening new prisons.

“We need to make sure those who deserve to be in jail stay there and those who committed minor crimes get out,” Moraes told reporters after visiting the Anisio Jobim penitentiary. “If not, we are only providing organized crime groups with new soldiers.”

The minister said that 42 percent of inmates in Brazil’s prisons are awaiting trial, versus a global average of just 20 percent. The prison system is among the worst in the world, according to human rights groups.

Overcrowding and violence are common, and rights groups describe medieval conditions with food scarce and cells so packed that prisoners have no space to lie down.

Brazil’s federal government will provide 1.2 billion reais ($367.82 million) to states by June to beef up security and buy more X-ray machines to prevent weapons from entering prisons, Moraes said.

The prison system in Amazonas state is run by two private companies that won a 27-year public contract.

The massacre in Manaus occurred when members of a local criminal gang known as North Family, which controls the Anisio Jobim prison complex, attacked inmates from the rival First Capital Command (PCC), security officials said.

Machete-wielding gangs decapitated inmates and threw their bodies over a wall of the prison, which houses more than three times the prison’s capacity.

A video seen by Reuters, whose authenticity could not be verified, showed prisoners tapping the decapitated heads of four men with knifes and yelling: “These are all PCC.”

Amnesty International called on Brazil to launch an independent investigation to bring those responsible to justice. – Reuters
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