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Veteran Convict Provides Glimpse Into Brazil's Violent Prisons


In January, two rival gangs clashed in a prison in the Brazilian city of Manaus in the Amazon rain forest. Over 17 hours of fighting, more than 50 prisoners were killed, many decapitated.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports that while this was one particularly violent episode, Brazil's prisons are notoriously dangerous, overcrowded and dominated by gangs.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Jose Piuma has spent most of his adult life in prison. The world he knows is one where guns and drugs are easily acquired.

JOSE PIUMA: (Through interpreter) They're in every prison. You just have to pay because people are corrupt.

REEVES: This world is dominated by powerful drug gangs, mafia-style organizations that sometimes run cellblocks because the prison staff won't or can't impose control. Piuma thinks it works better that way because the gangs set down rules.

PIUMA: (Through interpreter) When these rules didn't exist, the stronger inmates raped and robbed the weaker ones and even killed them.

REEVES: Piuma has close-cropped hair and twinkling eyes and looks younger than his 53 years. He's serving time for robbery and drug trafficking. He used to be a member of Rio de Janeiro's biggest drug gang, Red Command. He quit because these days, he says, he wants a quiet life in his own home with his family. Piuma is being allowed to serve the final few years of his sentence on day release, spending nights in prison and his days with a charity in Rio, rehabilitating former convicts.

Brazil has one of the world's largest prison populations, along with the U.S., China and Russia. More than 650,000 people are behind bars, often in severely overcrowded and squalid conditions. About a third are awaiting trial. Piuma says many people arrive in prison as young men accused of minor offenses, including...

PIUMA: (Through interpreter) The crime of stealing mobile phones or stealing stuff from supermarkets.

REEVES: They often have a long wait before their case comes up.

PIUMA: (Through interpreter) There are thousands of people who spend years and years without trial.

REEVES: This year, gang warfare has erupted within Brazil's prisons. More than 130 inmates have been killed. The killers flooded social media sites with pictures of their victims, many of whom were beheaded and disemboweled.

ANA PAULA PELLEGRINO: It's not only about killing the person, it's about sending a message.

REEVES: Ana Paula Pellegrino is from the Instituto Igarape, a think tank that researches Brazil's penal system.

PELLEGRINO: So you photograph it. You make sure that it gets on social media and that it runs around and that you send your message to the person that it was intended to get to, which is the rival faction.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: Sometimes the gangs go further.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: This song was posted on the Internet by the gang that carried out a massacre in a prison in the city of Manaus. It was the worst bloodshed in a Brazilian penitentiary in a quarter of a century. The song by the so-called Northern Family faction declares war on the targets of that attack, a rival organization called First Capital Command. The two gangs are battling for control over drug routes in the Amazon.

First Capital Command, or PCC as it's known here, is Brazil's most powerful drug gang. It's particularly influential within the prison system, says Graham Denyer Willis.

GRAHAM DENYER WILLIS: We know that the PCC has a presence or total control of the prison systems in most of the states of Brazil.

REEVES: Denyer Willis has written a book about First Capital Command and Brazil's police in the city of Sao Paulo. He says in some prisons, First Capital Command runs its own parallel judicial system.

DENYER WILLIS: There are formal tribunals which they organize in which people are made to sit down. Victims and witnesses are asked to present their different versions. Suspects and - and other people that are involved are able to provide testimony.

REEVES: Brazil's National Council of Justice, a state-funded body monitoring the penal system, says one third of Brazil's prisons segregates prisoners according to gang affiliation. Large numbers of Brazilian men are routinely sent into this benighted world. If you're not a gang member when you arrive, you'll likely soon become one, says Ana Paula Pellegrino

PELLEGRINO: We call prisons here in Brazil universities of crime.

REEVES: Pellegrino says when an inmate arrives in prison for the first time, wardens will sometimes ask what gang he belongs to and assign him to a part of the complex which that gang controls.

PELLEGRINO: What's happening here is a recruitment ground for these factions. That's what's happening.

REEVES: Brazil's penal system doesn't have to be like this, says Jose Piuma, the reformed convict.

PIUMA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Piuma says if only Brazil could provide these people with jobs and education, maybe they wouldn't wind up in prison in the first place.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE PEOPLE SONG, "MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.