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Riot at Brazil Prison Kills 31

A mass escape attempt turned into a hostage crisis, then a massacre. The violence lasted 2 1/2 days and ended after a chaplain intervened.

June 02, 2004|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

RIO DE JANEIRO — At least 31 people were confirmed killed Tuesday and at least 15 were injured in one of Brazil's worst prison riots in recent years, with authorities warning that the death toll could climb as they continue to search for bodies.

What began as a mass jailbreak attempt at the Benfica facility here turned into a 2 1/2-day hostage crisis and then a bloodbath in which the bodies of some victims were mutilated and burned beyond recognition, authorities said. The violence ended Monday after a popular prison chaplain intervened and smoothed negotiations between police and the rioters.

It was the second time in about six weeks that one of this country's lockups -- which are notorious for police abuses and hellish conditions -- was hit by a major uprising. In late April, prisoners in Rondonia state, deep in the Brazilian interior, seized control of the Urso Branco penitentiary for five days, killing 14 people and hurling corpses over the walls. They surrendered after authorities agreed to relieve the facility's terrible overcrowding.

At Benfica, a detention center in the north of this crime-ridden seaside city, some of the more than 800 inmates tried to stage a mass escape early Saturday, then overpowered guards who rushed to stop them. Fourteen inmates managed to break free; four of them were later captured.

Those left behind took 26 officers and orderlies hostage and snatched up their weapons. One captive guard was shot to death Sunday when he either tried to escape or was pushed out, said Thiago Fontoura, a spokesman for the penitentiary administration of Rio de Janeiro state.

Violence and pandemonium escalated as the riot spread through the facility, with inmates knocking down some walls and bashing holes in others, shouting at onlookers outside the detention center and hanging up banners denouncing the authorities or assuring loved ones that the writer was unharmed.

There were reports that much of the killing took place among members of Rio's rival drug gangs, whom authorities do not always segregate from one another. One banner declared, "We don't accept the mixing of prisoners in any system," while another warned of riots in a well-known lockup nearby if authorities did not "remove the enemy.... Water and oil don't mix."

However, Fontoura said the existence of warring factions did not account for why some inmates in a particular cell were slain, yet their associates in the same cell were not.

"The ones that were killed must have been out of personal rivalry or resentment, not because of factions," he said. "We don't know exactly and may never know."

After the chaplain interceded, rioters agreed to lay down their weapons and release hostages in exchange for guarantees of their own safety and immunity from official reprisal.

"I went into Benfica with the police when the inmates gave themselves up," said Geraldo Moreira, a member of the Rio state assembly and president of its commission on human rights. "We could see several mutilated bodies -- heads separated from the rest of the bodies, limbs in different places. The inmates had set fire to a gallery and burned some of the bodies."

Relatives of those inside the prison have protested and accused authorities of withholding information about the riot and the victims.

"We hope a rigorous investigation will reveal more information on why this happened," Moreira said.

The mayhem at Benfica occurred less than a week after Amnesty International released its annual report, which contained severe criticism of Brazilian detention facilities. In 2003, "detainees in police stations, prisons and juvenile detention centers continued to be held in cruel, inhuman or degrading conditions," it said.

The report cited overcrowding, lack of sanitation and the "persistent use of torture" throughout a system built to accommodate 180,000 inmates but forced to house about 285,000.

Brazilian officials have acknowledged the problems and say they are trying to solve them.

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