PORTO ALEGRE (Reuters) - Before Brazilian prosecutors could conduct an inspection last year of the prison considered the country’s worst, its warden had to clear their visit with the jail’s de facto authorities: in-house prison gangs.
As Brazil’s incarcerated population has surged eight-fold in three decades to around 750,000 inmates, the world’s third-highest tally, its prison gangs have come to wield vast power that reaches far beyond the jailhouse walls.
New President Jair Bolsonaro’s vow to crack down on spiraling crime has put him on a collision course with the jail gangs. In a strategy detailed to Reuters for the first time, top security officials said they plan to isolate gang bosses, ramp up surveillance, build more lockups and deploy federal forces to beleaguered state prison systems.
Originally formed to protect inmates and advocate for better conditions, Brazil’s prison gangs are now involved in bank heists, drug trafficking and gun-running, with jailed kingpins presiding over their empires via smuggled cellphones.
Their spread has kindled a violent crime wave, turning Brazil into the world’s murder capital. With a record 64,000 people killed in 2017, the prison gangs, or “facções,” have become the country’s most pressing security concern, and a daunting foe for Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain.
“The solution to public security in Brazil depends on lots of things, and one of those is the prison system,” said Fabiano Bordignon, Bolsonaro’s appointment as head of the National Penitentiary Department.
Bordignon, in an interview, said Brazil’s roughly 1,500 jails need about 350,000 more spaces to house prisoners. He plans to use a 1.5 billion reais ($396 million) federal prison fund to help state governments build between 10,000 and 20,000 spaces this year.
By the end of Bolsonaro’s term in 2022, Bordignon hopes to lower the deficit by up to 140,000 spaces. But with each new space costing an average of 50,000 reais, he knows he needs more money: “We’re not going to be able to solve everything in four years,” he said.
Still, authorities must “retake control” of Brazil’s jails, he added, since “in a good number of them, the state has no control.”
Nowhere is that reality starker than the Central Prison in the southern city of Porto Alegre. Inaugurated in 1959, it is Brazil’s largest lockup, and, according to a 2015 congressional report, also its worst.
When investigators from the National Council of the Public Ministry came to inspect the prison last year, its warden told them he had to first okay it with gang leaders, according to the investigators’ report.
The prison has a capacity of 1,824 people, but when Reuters visited, officials said there were nearly 5,000 inmates from at least eight different gangs stuffed into its moldy galleys - more than the entire prison population of Norway.
Internally, the prison is controlled by the facções, whose members live in rancid, densely packed cellblocks that armed guards only enter in riot gear. In one gang-controlled wing, some 300 inmates lived in a space designed for 200, with many sleeping in the corridor.
Roughly 30 percent of the jail’s population is more-or-less illiterate, and dozens of prisoners suffer from tuberculosis and syphilis, officials in the jail’s educational and medical wings said. In the exercise yard, which inmates share with rats and cockroaches, raw sewage gurgles out of broken pipes.
The gangs offer protection from rape and rival crews, but it comes at a steep price. Inmates here must buy their food from their bosses, who even control inmates’ intimate visits.
During Reuters’ tour, a gang boss smoked impassively as inmates filed in and out of a foul corridor, where they snuggled with girlfriends, wives or prostitutes on stained mattresses. Every so often, the boss called out a prisoner’s name to indicate his time was up.
Herique Junior Da Rocha Machado cast his lot with the prison’s 780 working inmates, who cook, clean and wash. The orange-clad workers are housed apart from the facções, but are reviled for collaborating with their jailers.
“If you don’t go into the workers wing, you go in with the facções. Then, when you return to the street, you end up falling back into crime,” said Machado, who was jailed for his role in a kidnapping. “The situation only deteriorates.”
Elected in October on a law-and-order platform to end years of graft and rising violence, Bolsonaro and his government must now pit their tough talk against the gangs.
To restore order, Bolsonaro has tapped Justice Minister Sergio Moro, a former judge who made his name jailing scores of Brazil’s political and business elite in the sweeping “Car Wash” corruption investigation.
In February, Moro unveiled his signature crime-fighting bill, which includes proposals to toughen prison sentences and isolate gang leaders in maximum-security lockups.
Moro’s proposal faces an uncertain future in Congress, where Bolsonaro is struggling to marshal a stable coalition.
Even if Moro’s bill flounders, Bordignon said the government plans to make it harder for cell phones to enter prisons, toughen recruitment of guards and launch a ranking system to help the federal government focus resources on failing jails.
He also expressed willingness during the interview to dispatch federal forces to states losing control of their prisons.
In January, Bolsonaro’s government sent federal agents to calm the northeastern state of Ceará, which suffered a wave of coordinated gang attacks after state authorities announced plans to toughen prison conditions.
The following month, the government struck another blow against the gangs by moving several leaders of Sao Paulo’s powerful First Capital Command (PCC), including top kingpin Marcos Willians Camacho, or “Marcola,” into federal jails.
Reuters visited the federal jail in Brasilia where Marcola and several other PCC leaders are being held.
Opened late last year at a cost of 45 million reais ($12 million) and modeled after a famous U.S. supermax prison in Colorado, the Brasilia jail has 208 individual cells, with 12 extra-secure ones for inmates such as Marcola.
High-risk prisoners are locked up for 22 hours each day, exercising for two hours in a small yard adjacent to their cell. Intimate visits are prohibited, and authorities recently put a stop to physical contact between inmates and their relatives or lawyers. Conversations now occur via telephone, with inmates separated from visitors by a hard plastic window.
“The federal penitentiaries are the most effective tool today to combat organized crime in Brazil,” said Marcelo Stona, director of operations for the National Penitentiary Department.
Nonetheless, Brazil has just five federal jails, all built since 2006, with capacity for just over 1,000 inmates - about 0.1 percent of the current prison population.
Like Porto Alegre’s Central prison, the vast majority of Brazil’s jails are run by financially stretched state governments, often with patchy results. Overcrowded cell blocks are policed by underpaid guards and deadly riots are common.
At least 56 inmates were killed in the northern city of Manaus in 2017, when members of rival prison gangs began slaughtering each other. Many were decapitated and dismembered.
Brazil’s states have made efforts to build modern, “gang-free” jails, but they, too, are proving vulnerable.
Unveiled in 2016, the Canoas jail is just over 25 kilometers (16 miles) from Porto Alegre’s Central Prison, but feels a world away. The Rio Grande do Sul state government hand-picks inmates to preserve the jail’s integrity. Signal-blockers prevent cellphone use. Eight-man cells, opened remotely from the floor above, minimize the risks of guards being corrupted.
Yet despite those efforts, two prisoners died here in suspicious circumstances in the second half of 2018, and local officials have become alarmed as other overcrowded state prisons send their gang-affiliated inmates to fill up Canoas’ vacancies.
“If we keep doing more of the same ... we’re going to lose everything,” said state prosecutor Alexander Guterres Thomé, who regularly inspects the Canoas jail. “You see that (the gangs) are starting to organize themselves in there. They want to enter, create chaos and take control.”
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Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Brad Haynes and Paul Thomasch