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Brazil Prison Riot Leaves 57 Dead, 16 Decapitated

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  • 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.

Prison Riot

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.

Political Problems

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)

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“Patriotism Pop” in India Encourages Hindus to Claim Kashmir

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  • A new genre of music called “patriotism pop” has been rapidly spreading on YouTube and TikTok in India.
  • The genre has recently evolved into music videos about Indians settling in Kashmir by buying land and marrying Kashmiri women following India’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s autonomous status.
  • Critics have argued that the music promotes a dangerous form of nationalism and patriotism.
  • Meanwhile, Kashmiris have been unable to address the rise of the new videos as they are still under a security lockdown and communications blackout.

Patriotism Pop

A growing genre of music in India called “patriotism pop” is increasingly being shared on social media more and more.

According to the Associated Press, which published a detailed article about the music Wednesday, patriotism pop is a type of popular music that features songs about Hindu nationalism and expresses support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

These songs and the videos that accompany them have become massively popular on YouTube and TikTok. YouTube has around 250 million users in India, while TikTok has about 150 million. As a result, patriotism pop songs have gotten millions of hits on those platforms.

Earlier songs in the genre were limited to the rise of Hindus in India, defeating Pakistan, and flying the Indian flag in every household. 

However, according to AP, the genre expanded after India revoked Kashmir’s special autonomous status on Aug. 5. 

For decades, the contested region that both India and Pakistan claim control over had its own constitution and many of its own laws. 

Now, India’s central government has exerted near-total authority over Kashmir by revoking the constitutional provision, known as Article 370, that had outlined Kashmir’s autonomy since India’s Independence from Britain in 1947.

Modi’s government also said it would allow Indians to buy property in Kashmir, something only Kashmiris had been allowed to do.

Just hours after India’s announcement, patriotism pop music videos about Indians settling in Kashmir by buying land and marrying Kashmiri women began circulating.

Controversial Videos

One video, titled “Article 370,” now has more than 1.6 million views on YouTube.

The video is largely composed of cuts between the Indian flag and speeches made by Modi. 

At one point, the singer thanks Modi and his government for removing Article 370. The video then cuts to the map of Kashmir and includes words that loosely translate to how Pakistan has lost to India.

The music video was produced by a self-identified Indian nationalist named Nitesh Singh Nirmal, who also collaborated on another song about a man who is looking for a Kashmiri bride.

“I am doing service for the nation,” Nirmal told AP. “People dance to these songs.”

Critics of the songs have argued that the idea of marrying Kashmiri women in order to settle in the region is problematic.

Speaking to AP, political anthropologist Ather Zia said that the songs are a “culmination of a toxic misogynistic nationalist thinking.”

“The Indian media — from news to entertainment — has left no stone unturned in portraying Kashmiri women in the racist trope of ‘coveted fair-skinned ones’ (and) at the same time being helpless and needing saving from their own men — all this while demonizing Kashmiri men,” she added.

Lockdown Continues in Kashmir

Meanwhile, Kashmiris have been unable to respond to these new videos as the entire region has been cut off from the internet since Aug. 5.

Along with cutting off communications, India also sent tens of thousands of military forces to Kashmir to basically put the city on lockdown by enforcing an almost constant curfew and patrolling the streets.

The people of Kashmir responded by launching a series of ongoing protests.

Indian officials have said that while they plan on keeping the internet cut off, they have begun to ease some of the restrictions in the region. However, it remains unclear how much is really being done, as most of the reporting comes from state-sponsored media in India.

Regardless, many Kashmiris are wary about any claims made by the government, especially after Indian officials said they had arrested more than 4,000 people since the crackdown began, including some high-profile political figures.

Those arrests are notable not only because of the sheer magnitude but also because India has a law that allows authorities to put someone in prison for up to two years without any specific charge or a trial.

There has also been some violence in parts of the region. On Wednesday, Indian authorities reported that two people were killed during a shoot-out between the police and Kashmiri rebels, marking the first reported clash involving gun violence in India-controlled Kashmir.

Meanwhile, clashes along the Line of Control that divides India-controlled Kashmir and Pakistan-controlled Kasmir have increased in the last few weeks.

There have been reports that gunfire has been exchanged multiple times, though India and Pakistan have given conflicting reports about the number of fatalities.

See what others are saying: (The Associated Press) (Al Jazeera) (The New York Times)\

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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro Criticized for Inaction Over Amazon Forest Fires

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  • Social media users are using #PrayforAmazonia to bring attention to fires in the Amazon forest that have been burning for three weeks.
  • Many blame Brazillian President Jair Bolsonaro for failing to take action to address the issue, while some argue that his pro-deforestation policies are what lead to the fires in the first place.
  • Since taking office in January, Bolsonaro has massively ramped up deforestation of the Amazon by rolling back protections and increasing access for agriculture and mining.

#PrayforAmazonia Trends on Twitter

Twitter users are criticizing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for his failure to stop a series of forest fires that have been tearing through the Amazon forest for the last three weeks

On Tuesday morning, “Amazon rainforest” and “#PrayforAmazonia” trended on Twitter. “Amazon rainforest is burning… And Bolsonaro is deliberately doing nothing,” one user wrote.

“This is the Brazilian environmental policy under president Bolsonaro,” another user wrote above pictures of fires. “The Amazon Rainforest’s burning for about 3 weeks and nothing’s been done.”

Other people noted the Amazon has been burning for weeks but that they were just learning about it now.

Some also pointed out the lack of media coverage on the fires.

Amazon Rainforest Fires

Currently, there are numerous fires in multiple states that are basically burning down the Amazon rainforest totally unchecked.

Last week, NASA released satellite images of a massive smoke layer covering a huge part of the forest. One NASA researcher told reporters that the smoke layer spanned about 1.2 million square miles, which is about one-third of the United States.

Satellite images of a massive smoke layer released by NASA.

The smoke has continued to spread, endangering the health of people and animals living in the area, according to local reports. The air quality has gotten so bad in some areas, that about two weeks ago, the state of Amazonas declared a state of emergency.

On Monday, people in São Paulo, which is on the other side of the country from the Amazon, shared pictures of the sky turning black in the middle of the afternoon, which multiple scientists have attributed to the smoke from the fires.

Cause of the Fires

Numerous experts have said that the fires are caused by humans and there are several pieces of evidence to back that up.

First, the Amazon rainforest is comparatively fire-resistant because it is so wet and humid. While there are often fires this time of year, they are usually caused by extreme droughts. 

Despite the fact that fire outbreaks rose by 70% this year compared to 2018, there have not been any extreme weather events that would cause this amount of fires.

Second, fire is actually used in the Amazon as an agricultural technique to clear land for planting crops. The technique, called “slash and burn,” is also one of the major methods used in the Amazon for illegal deforestation.

Since Bolsonaro took office in January, deforestation has rapidly increased.

According to satellite data from the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE), deforestation in the Amazon increased by around 245% in July 2019 compared to July 2018.

According to The Guardian, that’s the same as destroying three football fields worth of forest every minute.

Despite the fact that the data came from satellite images, Bolsonaro has described it as “fake news.” After the INPE reported those numbers, Bolsonaro fired the head of that agency.

“The numbers, as I understand it, were released with the objective of harming the name of Brazil and its government,” Bolsonaro told reporters earlier this month.

Bolsonaro’s Policies

As many have pointed out, Bolsonaro campaigned on opening up the Amazon to resource extraction. Since taking office, he has made it a key component of his economic policy.

Until Bolsonaro’s election, protecting the Amazon has been at the core of Brazilian environmental policy for the last two decades. 

With the help of powerful lobbyists, he has rolled back environmental protections and ratcheted up access to mining and agriculture by clearing huge sections of forest.

Many of the areas that Bolsonaro has opened up to agriculture and mining are protected indigenous lands, which the president has said are too big for the number of people who live there.

According to BBC, more than 800,000 indigenous people live in 450 demarcated territories which cover about 12% of land across the country. Most of those territories are in the Amazon region, and some are entirely isolated.

This strategy has endangered both the indigenous populations and the forest itself, especially as it is widely believed among experts and scientists that protecting indigenous lands is one of the best strategies to conserve forests.

This is especially important for the Amazon because the Amazon basin is absolutely critical to stabilizing the global climate.

The entire basin spans about three million square miles and includes 40% of the world’s tropical forests, 20% of its freshwater, and produces 20% of the air we breathe, according to a report by Foreign Policy.

It also has many keystone ecosystems which are crucial to global biodiversity. The importance of the Amazon cannot be understated.

Around 60% of the Amazon forest is in Brazil, a country where a number of top officials in the government do not even believe climate change is real.

Those officials are convinced any criticisms of Bolsonaro’s policies as harmful to the environment are propagated by civil society groups and foreign governments who are trying to sabotage the administration.

Bolsonaro, for his part, has largely expressed disinterest in the environment. 

When asked by a reporter last week about whether Brazil can grow more food and protect the environment at the same time, Bolsonaro responded, “It’s enough to eat a little less. You talk about environmental pollution. It’s enough to poop every other day. That will be better for the whole world.”

See what others are saying: (Newsweek) (Foreign Policy) (The New York Times)

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China Ramps Up Propaganda Against Hong Kong Protests

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  • China is ramping up its propaganda campaign against the Hong Kong protests.
  • These efforts include buying anti-protest ads on Twitter and Facebook, both of which are banned in China, as part of an effort to disperse misinformation to the international community.
  • China has also moved thousands of troops to their border with Hong Kong to conduct public military exercises that many believe are meant to intimidate protestors in Hong Kong.
  • On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets of Hong Kong in one of the biggest peaceful marches seen in the city since the protests first began 11 weeks ago.

Airport Protests

Mainland China has ratcheted up its efforts against the protestors in Hong Kong following several violent instances during protests at Hong Kong’s airport last week.

Last Monday, thousands of protestors flooded the Hong Kong airport, causing officials to cancel all flights. Limited flights resumed Tuesday and protestors began trying to block passengers from boarding planes.

The situation escalated after a group of demonstrators essentially held two men from mainland China hostage. The protestors reportedly believed one of the men was an undercover police officer, even though they had no confirmation of his identity or employment.

The other man who was seized by protestors has been confirmed as a journalist for the Chinese newspaper the Global Times. It was also reported that at one point, a group of demonstrators overwhelmed a police officer and beat him with his own baton.

These instances prompted police to violently crackdown on the protestors Tuesday night, using pepper spray and batons to disperse the demonstrators.

Flights resumed normally on Wednesday after airport authorities filed a court order to limit the protests.

China Propaganda

Amid the protests at the airport, mainland China has significantly stepped up its misinformation and anti-protest propaganda campaign.

While China’s state media has always portrayed the Hong Kong protests in a negative light, they have recently increased their efforts to villainize the protestors.

In general, the Chinese media have portrayed the protestors as a small group of bad actors who engage in extremely violent demonstrations. 

The official narrative in China is that the demonstrations have been planned and incited by foreign forces, including U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and the CIA, who the Chinese government claim pay the protestors to engage in activities that are not supported by residents of Hong Kong.

That narrative obviously contrasts greatly with the fact that the protests are part of popular demonstration movement that at times has prompted two million people— nearly one-third of Hong Kong’s population— to take to the streets.

The Chinese media has also said the protestors in Hong Kong are calling for independence from China, which threatens the mainland’s sovereignty. However, as many have noted, none of the protestors’ demands include independence from China.

The Chinese media has also manipulated pictures and videos of protestors to make them seem more violent. In one recent example, a video showed a protester with a toy Airsoft weapon used in a paintball-like game that’s popular in Hong Kong. 

The state-run newspaper the China Daily circulated that video, claiming it was evidence that the protesters had taken up arms and saying the toy was a grenade launcher used by the U.S. Army.

Over the weekend, it was reported that China’s largest state-run news agency, Xinhua News, bought ads on Facebook and Twitter to smear the protestors. Both Facebook and Twitter are banned in China, so the ads seem to be an attempt to influence the outside world to China’s favor.

One of the ads run on Facebook indicates that the violence from the protests is hurting Hong Kong’s economy, and goes on to say, “Calls are mounting for immediate actions to restore order.”

Another ad on Twitter also pushed the idea that everyone in Hong Kong wants “order,” claiming, “All walks of life in Hong Kong called for a brake to be put on the blatant violence and for order to be restored.”

Twitter Responds

Twitter addressed the misinformation campaign in a Twitter Safety blog post on Monday.

In the post, Twitter said they found “a significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong.” 

According to the post, Twitter located 936 accounts “originating from within” China that were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground.”

The post went on to say that Twitter had suspended all of the accounts for violating their platform manipulation policies, but also noted that those accounts were only the most active parts of the misinformation campaign, which they said consisted of around 200,000 accounts.

Continued Protests

Propaganda is only one of the methods China is using to put pressure on Hong Kong.

Beijing has recently moved thousands of paramilitary troops to mainland China’s border with Hong Kong.

Those forces have since been seen running very public military exercises over the last week or so, and many experts have said it is a reminder to Hong Kong that the mainland has not ruled out the use of force.

The combination of the violence at the airport and the rising threat from mainland China caused many protest leaders worried that the actions taken by a few demonstrators would deter others from continuing to protest.

The opposite appeared to be true on Sunday, when hundreds of thousands of protestors demonstrated in the rain for one of the biggest peaceful protests in weeks. Protest organizers estimated that around 1.7 million people came out, while the police claim the number is closer to 128,000.

Despite the fact that the authorities had not given the protestors permission for the march, it still remained peaceful.

Police presence was limited, and the officers who were present did not try to stop the protestors. The protestors themselves encouraged each other to avoid confrontations.

Sunday’s massive protest seemed to indicate that the people of Hong Kong are not backing down, even amid what many have described as unprecedented use of force by police and escalating threats from mainland China.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (Gizmodo)

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