By Maria Lopez Conde, Senior Contributing Reporter
SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL – Both leaders and members of Maranhão state crime gangs jailed at Pedrinhas Penitentiary in the capital of São Luís will be transferred to federal prisons over the next few days, announced that state’s Secretary of Public Safety, Aluísio Mendes, this week. The move was proposed by Brazil’s Ministry of Justice after a Pedrinhas-led crime wave left two dead and four city buses burned in São Luís.
“[Maranhão] Governor [Roseana Sarney] promptly accepted the offer from the Justice minister and initially mentioned 25 spots [in federal prisons], which were made available. The government is already working on selecting the leaders that will be transferred to federal penitentiaries,” Mendes said. Brazil has four maximum security facilities in the states of Mato Grosso do Sul, Rio Grande do Norte, Rondônia and Paraná.
On January 3rd, armed men set four buses ablaze in the Maranhão state capital. Maranhão officials believe the action was coordinated by inmates from Pedrinhas as a response to increased enforcement at the prison. Four people aboard one of the burnt buses sustained serious injuries, while one victim, six-year-old Ana Claros Santos Sousa, lost her life to the burns that covered 98 percent of her body.
The Maranhão state government says the alarming crime wave gripping São Luíz is a response to stronger enforcement at the penitentary. National Force troops were sent to Pedrinhas, where two inmates were killed in an inter-gang fight the night before the buses were burned down.
“Police gave a quick, prompt and effective response to those criminal actions, which were responses to the moralizing action of the Maranhão prison system,” Mendes affirmed, according to O Globo. “The order was to kill police officers, firefighters and burn about 20 buses,” he said. Mendes said a criminal known as “Praguinha,” who was arrested last Saturday, was responsible for executing the attacks. Police arrested a total of eight suspects in connection to the incidents.
Violence in Brazil’s overcrowded prisons, including uprisings and jailbreaks, are common. The country’s jails are dominated by rival gang groups, which frequently wage war against each other inside the penal system. Human rights activists charge Brazilian jails with harsh living conditions and high incidence of police brutality.
In 1992, more than 100 inmates were killed by the police at São Paulo’s Carandiru prison and in 2004, thirty inmates died during a three-day uprising in a Rio de Janeiro jail. Last October, thirteen prisoners died during a revolt at Pedrinhas.
Brazil has the world’s 4th largest prison population with over 500,000 inmates. The system, however, is only fit to accommodate an estimated 310,000.
A Brazilian Justice system report released in January shed light on the rising violence at Pedrinhas. According to its surveys, sixty inmates were killed there in 2013. Those deaths were primarily a result of inter-prison gang fights between crime groups from São Luís and gangs from the coastal state’s interior.
“The situation has turned into a complete crisis,” Deputy Judge of the National Council of Justice, which deals with the country’s prison system, wrote. “This is the most barbarous scene I have ever witnessed,” he continued, adding that three of the deaths that took place at Pedrinhas last year involved beheadings. The report that argues riots, sexual assault and an abusive authority run rampant at Pedrinhas was sent to the Supreme Federal Court earlier this month.
The government of Maranhão fired back at the National Council of Justice’s report, alleging that R$131 million have been invested in improving the prisons in the state since Governor Sarney came to power. It was not specified whether this amount of money was invested over the ten years that she has been in power, or during the three years since her latest term began.
The state government accused the report of spreading “untruths” about Pedrinhas and undermining the government’s policies there. The government said that the National Council of Justice acted “with the sole purpose of further aggravate the situation in the prisons of the state and in a clear attempt to undermine measures that had already been determined by the government.”
The prison system of Maranhão is considered the worst in the country, according to the DEPEN, Brazil’s Department of National Penitentiaries.