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BRAZIL
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10/28/2002
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While symbolic, Carandirú’s cl

Brazil closed a chapter in its troubled prison history when it transferred the last prisoners out of Carandirú, the largest and one of the most violent penitentiaries in Latin America. But as a riot a few days later in a Rio de Janeiro prison made clear, closing Carandirú did not solve the problems of overcrowding and violence or the abuse by prison guards that permeate Brazil’s prison system (LP, March 19, 2001).

On Sept. 15, the last 76 prisoners at the São Paulo House of Detention, better known as Carandirú, were taken to other prisons, ending the institution’s bloody, 46-year history. All inmates were transferred to newer, smaller facilities in the interior of the state.

Carandirú opened on Sept. 11, 1956, with a capacity of 500 prisoners, and was expanded over the years to hold 3,500. At its worst moments, between 8,000 and 10,000 inmates were jailed there. In all, 177,000 prisoners passed through the facility. Shortly after the prisoners were transferred, São Paulo Gov. Geraldo Alckmin signed a decree to convert the prison into a park.

"Now we can be sure that there will be no more slaughters like the one in 1992," said Nagashi Furukawa, secretary of penitentiary affairs for São Paulo, where nearly half of Brazil’s 240,000 inmates are imprisoned.

Hundreds of prisoners died in Carandirú over the years, but the prison gained worldwide notoriety on Oct. 2, 1992, as the site of Brazil’s worst prison massacre. Police who had entered the prison to put down a riot executed at least 111 prisoners. Dozens of inmates were forced to run toward the prison doors, then shot in the back, according to human rights organizations.

Retired Col. Ubiratán Guimarães, who directed the operation, still denies those reports. "We were met with bullets and had to respond," said Guimarães, who was sentenced last year to 632 years in prison, but released pending his appeal.

For more than two decades, the government tried to close Carandirú, but a burgeoning prison population pushed the idea onto the back burner. Meanwhile, the prison became a symbol of hopeless overcrowding in Brazil’s jails. Brazil’s prison population grew by 70 percent in the 1990s (LP, June 4, 2001).

Carandirú was also the birthplace of the First Command of the Capital (PCC), one of the country’s most dangerous organized crime groups. Using mobile phones, PCC members coordinated an uprising in February 2001 that spread through 29 prisons housing nearly 30,000 inmates and led to a 27-hour siege in which 7,000 hostages were taken. Prison authorities and negotiators averted a bloodbath, but decided that Carandirú would have to be closed. That month, Carandirú also set the record for Brazil’s largest jailbreak, when more than 100 inmates escaped through a tunnel. Prison staffing was inadequate — one cellblock had just three guards for 1,600 inmates.

While closing Carandirú is symbolic, it will have little effect on the conditions of most Brazilian prisoners, many of whom live in fear of both prison guards and other inmates. On Sept. 11, prisoners at Bangú 1 penitentiary in Rio de Janeiro took eight people — four guards and four employees of a construction company working in the prison — hostage and attacked a rival gang, killing four inmates. The prisoners reportedly sought transfers to other prisons, but Rio de Janeiro State Gov. Benedita da Silva said she would not meet their demands.

Brazilian media reported that the uprising was led by drug lord Luiz Fernando da Costa, known as Fernandinho Beira-Mar, who heads the Red Command gang in the prison. Da Costa is believed to control more than 60 percent of Rio’s drug trade from inside, netting him more than US$300,000 a week.

State security chief Roberto Aguiar said the four murdered inmates, members of the rival Third Command gang, included Ernaldo Pinto de Medeiros, who allegedly controlled drug sales in at least 35 Rio de Janeiro favelas, or shantytowns. Da Costa is expected to take over his late rival’s turf. "The objective wasn’t escape," Aguiar said. "It was to unite leadership" of the drug traffickers. "Anyone who opposed this was eliminated."

The prisoners released the last hostages unharmed on Sept. 12, ending the crisis. Da Silva fired the warden, suspended 12 guards and announced that da Costa would be put in solitary confinement.

In June, prosecutors released tapes of conversations in which da Costa was allegedly negotiating the purchase of a Stinger anti-aircraft missile from inside the prison. A sweep of cells after the latest incident turned up mobile phones and a laptop computer.

Preliminary indications are that da Costa had help from prison authorities in the takeover. Last year, almost half the prison guards at Bangú 1 were replaced because they were suspected of being paid by drug traffickers. Da Costa "has a lot of power within the prison and over functionaries," said Sandra Carvalho, research director for the Global Justice Center, a Brazilian group lobbying for prison reforms.


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