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article imageBrazil scrambles to secure jails after deadly riots

By Johannes MYBURGH (AFP)     Jan 17, 2017 in World

Brazilian authorities scrambled to secure the country's overcrowded jails on Tuesday, while inmates took over one prison after a series of mass-killings by imprisoned gang members.

Inmates climbed on the roof and set up barriers of furniture in a northeastern jail inhabited by warring rival drug gangs.

Police at one point fired rubber bullets at the inmates in the jail, where dozens were massacred over the weekend.

A total of 26 prisoners were killed in that bloodbath at the Alcacuz jail near the northeastern city of Natal.

Police said they had ended the violence on Sunday, but crowds of prisoners were still loose Tuesday in the open air between the prison blocks and the outer walls of the complex.

The governor of the surrounding Rio Grande do Norte state, Robinson Faria, said authorities were working to stop the prisoners escaping from Alcacuz.

"The situation is very tense," senior prison office Wellington Camilo was quoted as saying by news site G1.

- Prison guards on strike -

Brazil prison violence
Brazil prison violence
, AFP

The Natal massacre raised fears that the wave of violence could spread across the country -- including to the crime-plagued metropolis of Rio de Janeiro.

Prison guards there went on strike Tuesday in protest over unpaid wages, a symptom of Brazil's economic crisis.

Rio prison guards' union spokesman Gutembergue de Oliveira said there was just one guard for 200 inmates, although the government says there should be one to five.

"As well as a lack of prison guards, doctors, nurses and carers, we are faced with a huge jail population," he said.

The Alcacuz prison was built for a maximum of 620 inmates but currently houses 1,083, according to the state justice department.

After two riots earlier this month, President Michel Temer announced the federal government would spend $250 million to build new prisons.

On Tuesday the focus was on containing the volatility, however.

Temer "made the armed forces available to the states" to secure their prisons, a presidential spokesman said.

- Drug gang war -

Experts say the violence is part of a war between drug gangs battling for control of the cocaine trade in Brazil, one of the world's most important cocaine markets and a key trafficking route to Europe.

The Natal riot was thought to have been a clash between Brazil's biggest drug gang, the First Capital Command (PCC), and a rival called Crime Syndicate.

Gathered outside the jail, prisoners' relatives said members of Crime Syndicate were trying to break into a prison block to attack PCC members.

Brazilian riot police negotiate with a delegate representing inmates at the Alcacuz jail near the no...
Brazilian riot police negotiate with a delegate representing inmates at the Alcacuz jail near the northeastern city of Natal on January 16, 2017
ANDRESSA ANHOLETE, AFP

"This is a gang war. They destroyed the whole prison" in the riot that erupted on Saturday, Faria said.

"The PCC is defying not only the state but also the regional crime cartels in its efforts to control the drug trade."

- Bonfire of human heads -

The weekend bloodbath was the third mass-killing in Brazil's overcrowded jails this month.

"It was the most barbaric thing I have seen in my life. They made a bonfire of human heads," Faria told reporters in Brasilia, where he met with the government.

About 60 inmates were killed in the northwestern city of Manaus on January 1. Many were beheaded and mutilated.

A further 33 died in a prison riot in Roraima state on January 6.

In total, 134 people have been killed in prison violence this year, Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper said, citing justice ministry figures.

Authorities said prisoners also rioted on Monday in the Raimundo Nonato prison in Natal, and the Dutra Ladeira jail in the southeastern city of Belo Horizonte. No injuries or escapes were reported in those disturbances however.

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