Brazil’s Overcrowded Prisons Fuel Gangs Wars and Violence

In this Feb. 2, 2017 photo, prison workers stand inside the Anisio Jobim penitentiary complex, known by its Portuguese acronym of Compaj, in Manaus, Brazil. A massacre on New Year’s Day at the prison complex exposed a failed prison system and a fight between gangs for control far beyond the walls of jails. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

On New Year’s Eve, some 1,200 inmates enjoyed funk music and danced with family members inside the walls of Complexo Penitenciario Anisio Jobim, the largest prison complex in Brazil’s northern state of Amazonas.

Shortly after midnight, fireworks, paid for by gangs that dominate the prison system, lit up the sky in Manaus, an increasingly violent and gritty city of 2 million people that is the jumping off point to the Amazon jungle and central to Brazil’s growing drug trade.

The frolicking, conjugal visits and revelry continued well into New Year’s Day, until the last family member left at 4:09 p.m. What happened next, while feared by authorities since October last year, would go beyond any imagined worst case scenario, unleashing a level of brutality that laid bare a failed prison system and a bloody battle between gangs for influence in the north of Latin America’s largest nation.

The Associated Press gained exclusive access to the area of the massacre in the prison complex, known by the Portuguese acronym Compaj. What follows is based on the facility visit, forensics reports, interviews with prisoners, families of victims, prison guards, the warden and investigators overseeing the probe.


“We will kick in all PCC brains out of this prison!,” a member of the Family of the North gang yelled to Compaj cameras, using the Portuguese acronym for the First Capital Command, Brazil’s largest and most powerful gang that has its base in the southern megacity of Sao Paulo.

Family of the North members, carrying knives, homemade shivs and even several guns, moved quickly. A total of 15 guards and other staff, including a cook and a nurse, were taken hostage.

While the main targets were PCC gang members, the attacking prisoners had a score to settle first: Former policeman Moacir Jorge Pessoa da Costa, who had been jailed for killing drug dealers. Costa became famous as the bodyguard of deceased journalist Wallace Souza, who ordered killings and showed the result first hand on television as if they had been perpetrated by typical criminals.

Inmates wanted to behead and dismember Costa, but they struggled to break the lock on his cell. So instead, reaching through the bars, they lit mattresses in his cell on fire, burning him alive. Rapists in the same wing would later receive a similar fate.

Now Family of the North members, known by the acronym FDN, began entering an area where many PCC members. The wing was known as “the safe.”


“Vai morrer!,” FDN members shouted into an overcrowded cell made for only eight inmates. There were at least 27 inside. “You’re going to die!”

Gang leaders with nicknames “Maraba,” ”Caroco,” ”Demetrio,” ”Garrote,” ”Rivellino” and “Maguila” led the charge.

Cramped into cells, many PCC members had little room to run, or means to fight back. Over the next 15 minutes, several were shot, stabbed or both. The screams of horror and pain caused filled the aisles of Compaj.

Some PCC members managed to get to the roof of their cell block. At least three jumped into the prison’s gutter, spending half a day drenched in feces and urine. A group of evangelical prisoners pleaded with the killers to stop, but they were locked in their cells.

No guards tried to intervene, as several had been taken hostage. An elite police force that had been dispatched to the prison surrounded the outside in attempts to keep hundreds of inmates from escaping through a hole in one wall.


For decades, Brazilian prisons have had a central role in crime nationwide. From lockups, gang leaders order hits and oversee massive drug businesses that have their base in slums, or favelas, in major cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

PCC was born out of the largest prison massacre in Brazil’s history, when military police intervened during a 1992 rebellion and killed at least 111 inmates. Since then, the highly disciplined gang has become so powerful that many criminologists argue that the biggest reason for lowering crime rates in Sao Paulo in recent years is PCC’s increasingly more-business-and-fewer-bullets approach, not anything police do or policies implemented.

Over the last decade, the PCC has been expanding north. Manaus is a key destination in a drug route that enters the Brazilian territory through the Solimoes river that traverses South America. From here, drugs coming from massive producers Peru and Colombia head to Belem, a violent Brazilian port city of 1.4 million by the Atlantic Ocean. Control of that waterway means access to the European market.

For years, the PCC had a non-aggression pact with the Red Command gang, Brazil’s second biggest gang based in Rio de Janeiro. That fell apart in October of last year for reasons that experts say are still unclear. Whatever the motive, the ruptured truce led to prison riots in October that left 18 dead.

So prison authorities knew more riots and killing were likely. Few imagined the scale of what was happening at Compaj.


FDN members didn’t just want to kill members of the PCC.

Over the next 30 minutes, with police still outside the prison, dozens of bodies were dragged into pavilion 3, where some of the leaders of the group were waiting. FDN members, and others forced to do as they say, began cutting heads off. In total, 39 heads were lined up on the floor.

Limbs were also cut off and piled up, even from a few bodies that had been burned. Inmates also cut out 13 eyes and two hearts, which were used to traumatize the hostage guards and intimidate non-gang affiliated inmates who had not been killed.

A guard was forced to eat an eyeball. A transvestite prisoner was forced to take bites of a heart while she threw up.

Prisoners had broken nearly all the prisons security cameras, but that didn’t stop them from capturing their own images. With a FDN flag in the background, several photos and video showed the carnage as a warning to PCC to stop its incursion north.


FDN members wanted more. They wanted the whole prison. They moved toward the towers and a neighboring compound for female prisoners and others convicted of lesser crimes.

There they met with police, which fired on prisoners trying to go beyond the pavilions or those trying to escape. An estimated 225 escaped. It’s unclear how many died from clashes with police. Families and prison guards suggest there are still bodies in the woods.

Amazonas state Public Security Secretary Sergio Fontes said the massacre could have been much worse, since about 200 other PCC members were in other areas of the prison. A few days after the killing, they were all transferred to an old Manaus prison that had been deactivated due to its poor state.

“The carnage happened in the first minutes of the rebellion. The rest was the contempt with the bodies and a surreal negotiation so they did not take the fall after the acts the committed,” Fontes told the AP.


Fontes arrived at Compaj 10 p.m. with state judge Luis Carlos Valois. The men went past dozens of family members outside the main gates.

Negotiations were going on via radio with human rights activists. As a sign of initial good will to Valois, inmates freed three hostages.

Still, questions abounded.

Why were the inmates taking so long to make their demands? Were they planning another attack on PCC members in other wings of the prison? Was there an order from leadership in other states for members on the streets to act against policemen and public buildings?

“You could cut the tension in the air with a knife,” prison guard and union leader Rocinaldo Silva said. “We feared for our colleagues inside, but we also worried about other prisons that could face the same problem after hearing the news.”

Fontes and Valois agreed that they would know for sure whether there was anything to negotiate if they met face to face with FDN prison leaders. It took three hours, but at 1 a.m. “Maraba” and “Maguila” appeared.

They had a list of demands, some of which would be impossible to meet: no transfers, no persecution and routine visits of family stay intact.

As authorities discussed how to end the rebellion, the stench of dozens of open bodies took over the whole complex. The removal of the bodies became a part of the negotiation, with inmates requesting medical forensics agents to remove heads, limbs, body parts and full bodies from the floor. The same carts inmates used to carry food were prepared to take remains.


At 3 a.m., a deal was struck. The routine would be kept, police would not attack inmates and medical forensics would be allowed to collect bodies. In exchange, prisoners would release the remaining hostages and hand weapons and cellphones to elite police squad, increasing frustrated and ready to enter the prison.

When Valois told the leaders that he could not stop riot police from coming in, and that transfers to federal prisons were beyond his reach, the prisoners were clearly upset.

So the judge and the secretary decided to go, leaving the message that either inmates put an immediate end to the rebellion or police would do it forcefully.

At about 5 a.m., medical forensic experts came in to remove the remains and bodies. A couple of hours later the first of the 39 heads and of the 57 bodies arrived at the legal medicine offices downtown Manaus. Dozens of families lined up in front of the building, already fearing the worst.

Carlos Procopio dos Reis, head of that medical forensics unit in Manaus, said he needed several extra staffers to deal with the massacre.

“I thought I had seen all human puzzles,” said Reis, who has worked in forensics for 23 years. “But this was unprecedented. I still dream that I am in a truck throwing heads for people to catch.”

As the first pieces and bodies arrived at the medical forensics office, survivors that were hiding slowly reappeared. They were the first to be placed for transfer.

By 7:30 a.m., more than 15 hours after the beginning of the rebellion, the last hostages were released and some of the weapons and mobiles were handed to police.

Two people would lose their jobs: prison director Jose Carvalho da Silva, who is suspected of allowing weapons and mobiles into Compaj in exchange for money. Silva denies any wrongdoing.

The other is now former Amazonas Prison Secretary Pedro Florencio, a respected retired federal policeman that was sacked because the massacre happened on his watch.

“To this day, I close my eyes and see parts of bodies of inmates everywhere,” Florencio said. “For me that New Year’s Day will never end.”

Investigators still don’t know who gave the order to begin the bloodshed that ended with 57 dead, but high up in the suspect list is Jose Roberto Fernandes Barbosa. Known as Ze Roberto da Compensa, he is the main leader of crime gang Family of the North, which dominates drug routes in the Amazon.

Ze Roberto is far from Compaj, though. The top boss of FDN, as the Amazon gang is known, lives in a prison almost 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) South of Manaus, in the city of Campo Grande. His followers surely followed his commands of killing with sadistic means whenever they believe is needed.

Source: Associated Press