BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil aims to build nearly 30 prisons over the next year to ease chronic overcrowding in its penitentiary system as part of a package of emergency measures to tackle a wave of deadly prison riots, President Michel Temer said on Monday.
In an interview with Reuters, Temer said Brazil’s federal government would build five maximum security prisons to house the most violent convicts, often members of rival drug gangs whose turf war has plunged the prison system into crisis over the past two weeks.
At least 140 inmates have been killed since the start of the year in riots at poorly staffed prisons run by cash-strapped state governments. Many of those killed had their heads cut off and were badly mutilated or burned.
Brazil’s penitentiary system, the fourth largest in the world, is home to more than 620,000 convicts and is running more than 50 percent over capacity. Almost all of its 1,400 jails are run by state governments.
Brazil’s existing four federal maximum security prisons - which have not seen rioting - are close to overflowing as more and more convicts are being sent from state prisons following the riots.
As part of the package of measures worth more than 1 billion reais ($309 million), Temer said state governments in partnership with the federal government will also build an additional 25 prisons to reduce overcrowding.
“We want to expedite the construction of these prisons because it would take two or three years using traditional methods,” Temer told Reuters. “By using pre-fabricated buildings - which has already been done in Espirito Santo state - perhaps we can build all of these prisons in one year.”
Brazil’s prisons are largely controlled by gangs, with drugs, guns and all manner of contraband entering regularly, authorities acknowledge. Jailed gang leaders continue to run their criminal networks by cellphone from their prison cells.
This year’s intense violence is the result of a split between Brazil’s most powerful drug gang, the First Capital Command (PCC), and its main rival, the Red Command.
For more than two decades the two gangs maintained an uneasy working relationship, ensuring that a steady flow of drugs and arms easily made its way over Brazil’s porous borders with the world’s biggest cocaine-producing nations.
But about six months ago, security officials and experts say, the PCC moved to fully take over trafficking routes and tried to push the Red Command aside.
The latest round of violence came at the weekend when members of the PCC slaughtered 26 other inmates in a riot at the Alcaçuz prison in the state of Rio Grande do Norte. A new riot erupted there on Monday.
Temer said the problem would not be solved by building prisons alone. He said his government would in the future insist that non-violent criminals were separated from more dangerous ones to prevent them being recruited by organized crime.
With more than one-third of Brazil’s prison population being held pending trial, Temer said his government would work with judicial authorities to speed up their hearings to reduce overcrowding.
A planned census of prisoners would also identify inmates who have already served their term but are still being held behind bars, Temer said.
He also pledged greater cooperation with neighboring countries to crack down on gangs funded by drug trafficking. Brazil’s defense minister is due to meet with his counterparts from Peru and Colombia to discuss border security this week.
“This issue is also going to be discussed with state governors so that we can incentivize the fight against cross-border trafficking of drugs, the smuggling of people and materials, and arms,” Temer said.
Reporting by Anthony Boadle, Lisandra Paraguassu, Maria Pia Palermo and Daniel Flynn; Editing by Chris Reese