- 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)
Canadian Catholic Priest Says Residential Schools Survivors Lied About Abuse
The Roman Catholic Church is facing considerable backlash across Canada for its treatment of indigenous peoples in the residential school system, along with its subsequent efforts to downplay the problem.
Priest Sparks Outrage
Father Rheal Forest was put on forced leave Wednesday following remarks he made over a weeks-long period starting July 10 in which he doubted victims of the country’s infamous residential school system.
Residential schools were a system of schools largely for indigenous children that were mostly run by the Catholic Church with federal government funding. The schools were notoriously cruel and long faced allegations that children had been abused or went missing under their care.
To date, over 1,300 unmarked graves have been found at four former residential schools across Canada, a fraction of the over 130 that used to exist.
Forest, of the St. Boniface archdiocese in Winnipeg, was standing in for a couple of weeks while the main priest at his church was away. During that time, Forest told parishioners that victims of the residential schools, particularly those sexually abused, had lied.
“If [the victims] wanted extra money, from the money that was given to them, they had to lie sometimes — lie that they were abused sexually and, oop, another $50,000,” he said.
“It’s kind of hard if you’re poor not to lie.”
In that same sermon, he also added that during his time with Inuit groups in the north of the country, most had allegedly said they appreciated the residential school system. Instead, he said they blamed any abuses on lay people working at the facilities rather than priests or nuns.
Forest’s comments drew a ton of backlash, prompting the archdiocese to place Forest on leave. A spokesperson for the archdiocese said that the institution “completely disavow” Forest’s comments, adding, “We very much regret the pain they may have caused to many people, not least of course Indigenous people and, more specifically, survivors of the Residential School system.”
Overall, the archdiocese has attempted to apologize to indigenous communities for its part in the residential school system, with Archbishop Albert Legatt saying in a video that the way forward was by “acknowledging, apologizing, and acting” on terms set by indigenous groups.
Church Allegedly Kept Money From Victims
Forest’s views and subsequent dismissal aren’t the only public relations scandal the Roman Catholic Church faces in Canada.
According to documents obtained by CBC News, the Church spent over a decade avoiding paying out money to survivors per a 2005 agreement. At the time, it, alongside the protestant churches that also ran some residential schools, agreed to pay an amount to victims of the schools in the tens of millions.
Instead, according to an internal summary of 2015 court documents, the Catholic Church spent much of that money on lawyers, administration, a private fundraising company, and unapproved loans. It seems that some of this was technically legal, such as a promise to give tens of millions back via “in-kind” services; however, there was no audit completed to confirm that these services actually happened or to prove the alleged value of the services. This led to doubts about whether or not they were done effectively.
The Catholic Church was unique among the signatory churches in the 2005 agreement with its efforts to avoid paying victims. All of the other denominations paid out their sums many years before without issues.
While priests such as Father Forest have supported the Church, there has been internal backlash. Father André Poilièvre, a Saskatoon priest and Order of Canada recipient, said the Church’s actions are “scandalous” and “really shameful,” adding, “It was a loophole. It might be legal, but it’s not ethical.”
With these latest revelations, widespread anger at the Church has triggered allegations that indigenous groups are behind a spree of church burnings across the country.
The entire situation is likely going to continue to smolder as a government commission set up to investigate the schools estimates there will be thousands of more unmarked graves found across Canada.
See what others are saying: (CBC News) (The Guardian) (CTV News)
Tokyo Sets Back-to-Back Records for Number of Daily COVID-19 Cases
Some positive cases were detected among people attending the Olympic Games, including a handful of athletes.
Cases Going Up
The Tokyo Olympic Games found itself in more controversy on Wednesday after Tokyo experienced a record number of daily COVID-19 cases for the second day in a row.
On Tuesday, the city recorded 2,848 new cases of the virus, passing the 2,500 daily new case threshold for the first time since the pandemic began. Then on Wednesday, it shattered the record again with 3,177 new COVID-19 cases.
At least 155 of those new cases were detected among people attending the Games, including a handful of athletes, which contrasts Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s promise that the Olympics wouldn’t be hit with the virus. The spike in new cases has largely been attributed to the delta-variant, something that many countries are dealing with around the world.
Nishimura Yasutoshi, a Japanese economic minister, told a parliamentary panel this week that COVID-19 cases are expected to continue rising for at least a few days. He also explained that many people may have delayed getting tested last week due to holidays, therefore inflating total daily new case numbers.
Governors in prefectures around Tokyo have moved to ask the government for states-of-emergency, which Tokyo is already under.
Doubts About Government Response
The prime minister said in a press conference on Tuesday that “the government has secured a new drug that reduces the risk of serious illness by 70 percent,” adding, “we have confirmed that this drug will be used thoroughly from now on.”
However, he never actually mentioned what drug he was referencing.
“In any case, under these circumstances, I would like to ask the people to avoid going out unnecessarily and to watch the Olympics and Paralympics on TV,” Suga continued.
He also stressed that canceling the Olympics amid the outbreak was completely out of the question, although there have been continued calls from the public and opposition lawmakers for just that.
Beyond refusing to cancel the Games, Suga is facing backlash for refusing to enact strict state-of-emergency protocols. Currently, the measures in Tokyo are almost all voluntary and consist of asking people to stay home, along with requesting restaurants that serve alcohol to completely close and telling all others to shut down by 8 p.m.
See what others are saying: (Reuters) (NPR) (The Wall Street Journal)
First Person Charged Under Hong Kong National Security Law Found Guilty of Terrorism and Inciting Secession
Dozens more are awaiting trial for breaking the controversial National Security Law, which is aimed at protecting Chinese sovereignty at the cost of basic freedoms within Hong Kong.
First Conviction Under National Security Law
The first person to be charged under Hong Kong’s extremely controversial National Security Law was found guilty of his crimes Tuesday morning.
A judge ruled that Tong Ying-kit was guilty of both terrorism and inciting secession after the 24-year-old failed to stop at a police checkpoint while on his motorcycle last July, which resulted in him eventually riding into police. At the same time, he was carrying a flag that said “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.”
According to Justice Esther Toh, that phrase alone was capable of inciting others to commit succession, she also that added that Tong understood that the flag had secessionist meaning in an effort to set aside doubts that Tong understood the flag’s inherent meaning.
Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director said,“The conviction of Tong Ying-kit is a significant and ominous moment for human rights in Hong Kong.”
“Today’s verdict underlines the sobering fact that expressing certain political opinions in the city is now officially a crime, potentially punishable by life in jail,” she added.
More Convictions Expected Sparking Fear Over Erosion of Rights
A long string of convictions will likely follow Tong’s, as over 100 people have been arrested under the ambiguous law that criminalizes many forms of freedom of expression under the guise of protecting Chinese sovereignty. Of those arrested, 60 are currently awaiting trial, including dozens of pro-democracy politicians who have been accused of subversiveness for their calls to block the government’s agenda in the legislature.
That has drawn particular concern among international critics who fear the precedent that will be set once it’s clear to politicians that failing to rubber-stamp the Communist Party’s agenda will result in prison terms.
It’s widely expected that as more people are found guilty, the few remaining protections of the city’s Basic Law, a British common law-inspired mini-constitution, will be completely eroded.