Prison riot in Brazil leaves at least 30 inmates dead, some beheaded

The Alcacuz Penitentiary Center near Natal, Rio Grande do Norte state, northe-astern Brazil, during a prison riot.
The Alcacuz Penitentiary Center near Natal, Rio Grande do Norte state, northe-astern Brazil, during a prison riot.PHOTO: AFP
Inmates during the riot that left at least 10 others dead.
Inmates during the riot that left at least 10 others dead.PHOTO: AFP

RIO DE JANEIRO (NYTIMES/REUTERS) - At least 30 inmates have been killed in a prison riot in northeastern Brazil, the latest in a wave of uprisings in the country's overcrowded prisons that have killed nearly 140 this year.

Members of a drug gang started the clash by invading a pavilion in the Alcaçuz prison where rivals rested, Rio Grande do Norte state’s security secretariat said on Sunday. 

According to the person, who asked for anonymity because forensic work is under way, the number of deaths could “slightly rise.”  Police surrounded the prison overnight, but waited until noon to enter because of reports that inmates remained armed and out of their cells.

More than a dozen inmates injured in the clash have been taken to hospitals near the Alcaçuz facility, the person said..

In a statement, the authorities said that the riot was caused by a fight between prisoners from two wings.

"A group of prisoners managed to get out of their cells and invade another wing," said Caio Bezerra, the secretary of public security and social defense for Rio Grande do Norte.

Late Saturday, the police had yet to regain control of the entire prison.

Authorities were examining images circulating on social media, including one of three decapitated heads in a prison yard, Bezerra said.

"We are verifying if that happened at Alcaçuz," he said.

Killings and decapitations are common in Brazil's prisons, but violence has exploded this year. The latest uprising followed the massacre of 56 prisoners during a riot at a jail near Manaus in the Amazon state of Amazonas on New Year's Day. Four more prisoners were killed in a nearby prison the next day.

State authorities ascribed blame for the Manaus deaths to the Family of the North, an Amazon drug gang that had attacked prisoners connected to a rival gang, the São Paulo-based First Capital Command. The gangs were believed to be fighting for control of drug smuggling routes.

Four days later, 33 prisoners were killed and many were dismembered at a prison in Boa Vista in Roraima state, in the far north of Brazil. Authorities said the First Capital Command was behind the killings. Then four more prisoners were killed in a third Manaus prison after being moved from the site of the first massacre.

Azevedo said that the gang, known by its Portuguese initials, PCC, and a Rio Grande do Norte gang called the Crime Syndicate were involved in the riot Saturday.

On Sunday, Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes vowed to extend financial and security support for Rio Grande do Norte to prevent further prison uprisings. Moraes authorized the state to use some of the 13 million reais it wired in recent days to upgrade and acquire prison equipment.