By Lise Alves, Senior Contributing Reporter
SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL – After prison riots that left at least 56 inmates dead on New Year’s Day in the Amazon region, Brazil’s President Michel Temer met with several cabinet members on Thursday to talk about the country’s security system. According to federal officials, Amazonas state officials knew of plans of a mass escape days before the massacre.
“The state government has said that it took all necessary steps to prevent the escape. No omission has been proven so far,” said Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes on Wednesday.
“What can be said is that a series of errors occurred. I have no doubt that there was a failure by those who take care of the penitentiary. Because otherwise machetes, heavy armament, alcoholic beverages and cell phones would not have entered the compound,” concluded the official.
In addition to the deaths, 184 inmates from two facilities escaped. As of Wednesday evening only 63 had been recaptured, according to Agencia Brasil. The riot is being attributed to a dispute between two rival factions for the command of drug trafficking in the region.
State officials have announced that they identified eight leaders of the riot and were requesting assistance to transfer the inmates to federal penitentiaries outside the state.
At the beginning of the cabinet meeting on Thursday morning, President Temer spoke about the massacre. “I want first and once again express my solidarity with the families that had their prisoners victimized in that terrible incident that occurred in the prison in Manaus,” Temer said. During the past few days Temer has been widely criticized for not releasing a statement about the incident.
On Wednesday, NGO Human Rights Watch said that the country needed ‘to seize control of its prison system from gangs and guarantee the safety of all detainees’.
“During the past several decades, Brazilian authorities have increasingly abdicated their responsibility to maintain order and security in prisons,” said Brazil director at Human Rights Watch Maria Laura Canineu. “That failure violates the rights of prisoners and is a boon to gangs, who use prisons as recruiting grounds.”
According to the NGO the country’s prisons, built to hold 372,000 people, held more than 622,000 in 2014, the last year for which official data exists. ‘Overcrowding and understaffing make it impossible for prison authorities to maintain control within many facilities, leaving inmates vulnerable to violence and gang activity’ stated the organization in one of its documents.
Amnesty International also issued a statement calling for an immediate investigation into the massacre and criticizing the prison’s overcrowded conditions. According to data from the Amazonas Penitentiary Department Administration, the Compaj complex has a capacity to house 454 inmates but on Sunday was holding approximately 1,200.
“The overcrowding and poor conditions of the Anísio Jobim Complex, as well as the prison system in Amazonas state as a whole, had already been denounced by the National Justice Council (CNJ) and the National Mechanism for Preventing and Combating Torture. But authorities did not adopt the necessary measures and the situation only deteriorated,” said the entity in the statement.