- A prison riot between rival gangs in Brazil left at least 57 inmates dead. Of those killed, 16 were decapitated and the rest died from smoke inhalation from a fire that was started.
- Gang violence is common in Brazilian prisons, which kingpins often use as command centers to run their criminal operations.
- Inmate populations have grown dramatically in the last decade, creating issues with overcrowding and lack of funding, and leaving Brazil with the third-largest prison population in the world.
- Experts expect the violence to get worse as inmate populations rise, and as President Jair Bolsonaro promises to put more people in jail.
A prison riot that broke out in the state of Pará, Brazil Monday has left 57 people dead.
The riot reportedly started when members of one gang at the Altamira prison invaded the prison block that another rival gang occupied. Gang members then started a fire, which spread rapidly and prevented police from entering the building for several hours.
Once the riot was stopped and the damages were assessed, authorities reported that 16 people had died from decapitation, while the rest had died from smoke inhalation from the fire.
Two prison guards were also held hostage during the riot, but they were later released unharmed.
“It was a targeted attack,” State prisons chief Jarbas Vasconcelos said in a statement. “The aim was to show that it was a settling of accounts between the two groups, not a protest or rebellion against the prison system.”
Vasconcelos statement is not wrong, but the situation is more nuanced than his description may imply.
At the surface level, it is true that the riot was caused by rival gangs. Over the last few years, Brazil’s largest gangs have expanded and spread across the country as they develop lucrative drug routes and form alliances with smaller gangs.
That has also lead to more violence between gangs. Those clashes do not stop when gang members or even the drug kingpins are put in jail. In fact, many of the gangs consider prisons to be a sort of command center or home base.
Brazil’s government has long moved gang leaders to prisons that are far away from their homes with the hope that it will weaken their criminal networks.
However, that policy seems to have completely backfired because it has basically just allowed the gangs to create a broader national reach.
Once in jail, gang leaders use smuggled cell phones to continue to run their criminal organizations, sometimes across multiple states.
These gang members are incredibly powerful in Brazilian prisons, so much so that other inmates are often forced to join the gangs to survive.
Overcrowding & Underfunding
While it is true that the rivalries between these gangs prompted Monday’s riot, that kind of mass violence is not necessarily inevitable.
The violence among prison inmates is exacerbated by more structural issues, like overcrowding and lack of funding. Brazil’s prison population has risen in recent years, but there has not been funding or investment to match that rise.
According to the Washington Post, Brazil’s inmate population has gone from about 500,000 to 800,000 in the last 10 years alone, making it the third-largest inmate population in the world after the U.S. and China.
Just this month, Brazil’s National Justice Council released a report that found the Altamira prison was built for 163 detainees but holds 343. The report also described the conditions inside the prison as “terrible.”
At a press conference, Vasconcelos said Altamira is not considered overcrowded. “It is not a unit that has a prison overcrowding, we consider overcrowding when it exceeds 210 percent,” he said.
However, some of the Brazilian facilities are reportedly so overcrowded that inmates are forced to sleep standing up and their hands are tied to bars so they stay upright. The lack of funding also means that prisons are short-staffed.
Experts have said that the combination of overcrowding and lack of funding has a direct connection to increased gang violence in the prisons.
“There are almost twice as many prisoners as there is prison space,” Bruno Paes Manso, a researcher at the University of Sao Paulo’s Violence Studies Center told the Washington Post. “The result is that this insecurity strengthens gang command and prison leadership, which has grown in Brazil in the last 10 years.”
Experts also believe this kind of violence will not only continue but also get worse, which is something that is already happening.
The Altamira riot is not the only instance of prison violence that has caused mass fatalities in the last few months. In May, 55 people were killed in riots that broke out in four separate prisons all in the state of Amazonas. Again, those riots stemmed from power struggles between gangs.
In early 2017, more than 120 inmates died when rival gangs fought over control of drug-trafficking routes. That violence lasted several weeks and spanned multiple states.
Brazil’s troubling prison system begs the question: what are politicians and the government doing?
In many ways, the answer is just making it worse. President Jair Bolsonaro was elected last year on the promise that he would crack down on crime, even saying that he planned to “stuff prison cells with criminals.”
However, Paes Manso believes this will only make things worse.
“By insisting on high incarceration in overcrowded prisons, Bolsonaro wants to increase the dose of the poison that is killing us,” he said.
Overcrowding is also complicated by the fact that many of Brazil’s prisons are run at the state level. While Bolsonaro’s administration has called for states to build more prisons, the lack of funding makes that unlikely.
Even the prisons that have been built recently are not enough. According to the Washington Post, space for over 8,650 inmates has been built since 2018, but the number of new inmates grew by more than 17,800 during the same time.
Other’s have also proposed sending gang kingpins to federal prisons, but experts have argued that the violence is a product of an inherently flawed system.
“Nationwide, 40 percent of people in detention are awaiting trial,” Maria Laura Canineu, the director of the Brazil office of Human Rights Watch told the Washington Post. “Most inmates are black young men with low levels of education who depend on understaffed public defenders’ offices for their legal defense.”
Canineu also added that she too anticipates that prison gangs will get stronger as inmate populations grow in already overcrowded prisons.
There is also a general lack of political will to fix that broken system. Some politicians, like Bolsonaro, seem to want to increase the inmate population.
Some analysts believe that as the violence gets more common, the people of Brazil, who are already used to prison violence, will become more apathetic.
“Unfortunately, most Brazilians will shrug off this latest outbreak of violence, numb as they are to the ritual of bloodletting in the country’s prisons,” Robert Muggah, the research director at the Rio de Janeiro-based think tank Igarapé Institute told the New York Times
Others even seemed to celebrate the violence. Gilson Cardoso Fahur, a congressman from Parana state who was recently elected on the promise to curb violent crime, responded to Monday’s riot, seemingly cheering them on.
“In these fights between criminal factions, I root for the machete,” he said. “The truth is no one is going to miss them. They won’t commit crimes again.”
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (CBS News)
Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders
Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.
Azovstal Waves the White Flag
Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.
A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.
The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.
It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.
Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.
Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.
Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.
Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands
After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.
The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.
Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.
The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.
The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.
It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.
See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)
Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls
Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.
Hundreds Make It Out Alive
A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.
People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.
The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.
Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.
“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”
63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.
“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.
Putin’s Plans Go Poorly
In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.
On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.
The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”
Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.
After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.
“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.
On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.
Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.
The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”
“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.
Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.
See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (U.S. News and World Report) (The Hill)
Israel Moves to Build Over 4,000 West Bank Settlements as Palestinian Homes Demolished
The Israeli military is proceeding with a plan to evict at least 1,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.
Settlers Get Ready to Move in
On Thursday, a military planning body in the Israeli-occupied West Bank approved the construction of 4,427 housing units, according to the watchdog group Peace Now.
“The State of Israel took another stumble toward the abyss and further deepened the occupation,” Hagit Ofran, an expert at Peace Now, said via the Associated Press.
The plan is the largest advancement of settlement projects since President Joe Biden took office in the United States.
The U.S. opposes settlement expansion and said as much when the plan was first announced last week, but critics say Washington has done little to pressure Israel to stop.
In a statement, U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland called the settlements a “major obstacle to peace.”
“Continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population,” he said.
In October, Israel approved some 3,000 settlement homes despite a U.S. rebuke. There are currently over 130 Israeli settlements in the West Bank harboring almost 500,000 settlers, in addition to the nearly three million Palestinians living in the territory.
Palestinians Pushed Off Their Land
On Wednesday, the same day Israeli soldiers allegedly shot and killed Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the military demolished at least 18 buildings in the West Bank, including 12 residential ones.
Israel’s supreme court has also ruled that eight Palestinian hamlets can be expelled, potentially leaving at least 1,000 Palestinians homeless.
The area targeted is known as the Masafer Yatta, and its residents say they have been herding animals and practicing traditional desert agriculture there for decades, long before Israel took over the West Bank in 1967. Israel, however, claims there were no permanent structures there before the military designated it a firing zone in the 1980s
“What’s happening now is ethnic cleansing,” Sami Huraini, an activist and a resident of the area, told the Associated Press. “The people are staying on their land and have already started to rebuild.”