RIO DE JANEIRO // At least 60 people were killed when rioting inmates in Brazil’s Amazon region decapitated some of their rivals in gang fighting.
The riot began on Sunday afternoon at a prison in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, said the head of the state’s prisons, Pedro Florencio. “There are 60 dead so far,” he said.
Officials said they were trying to determine whether any prisoners had escaped.
State public security secretary Sergio Fontes said the riot developed into the biggest prison massacre in the state’s history.
Police were able to restore order only on Monday morning, freeing 12 guards who had been taken hostage, he said.
They found a horrific scene inside the Anisio Jobim jail.
“Many victims were decapitated, and they all suffered a lot of violence,” Mr Fontes said.
He said the massacre appeared to be aimed at sending a message from the Family of the North (FDN) – a powerful local gang – to rivals from the First Capital Command (PCC), one of Brazil’s largest gangs, whose base is in Sao Paulo, about 2,700 kilometres to the south-east.
“During the negotiations to end the riot, the prisoners had almost no demands. Their only request was not to be mistreated by the police when they came in,” Mr Fontes said.
“We think they had already done what they wanted – kill members of the rival organisation and get a guarantee that they would not be beaten by the police. The FDN massacred suspected members of the PCC and other rivals.”
It was the latest eruption of violence to hit Brazil’s underfunded and overcrowded prisons.
In October, deadly riots broke out at three separate jails blamed on fighting between members of the country’s two largest gangs, the PCC and the Red Command (CV).
During that episode, rioting inmates took visitors hostage, beheaded rivals and burnt others alive, authorities said. At least 25 inmates were killed at one prison in the state of Roraima.
Brazil’s prisons are often under the de facto control of drug gangs, whose turf wars on the outside are also fought out among inmates.
“Fighting between different criminal factions occurs all over Brazil, in every penitentiary,” said Mr Florencio.
About 622,000 people were jailed in Brazil as of the end of 2014, according to a justice ministry report. Most of them are black males.
The figure makes Brazil’s prison population the fourth-largest in the world, the report said, after the US, China and Russia.
Human rights groups have long complained about the conditions in Brazilian prisons.
According to the ministry report, Brazil’s prisons need 50 per cent more capacity to handle the current number of inmates.
Nationwide, there was an average of 1.67 prisoners for every available space. But in Amazonas state, the figure was 2.59 prisoners for every space.
* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press