By Ben Tavener, Senior Contributing Reporter

SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL – Over twenty years after the infamous massacre in São Paulo’s Carandiru prison, in which a police operation to quell a riot left over a hundred prisoners dead, the first of 79 officers are to be put on trial for their involvement. The trial of 26 officers over the murder of fifteen inmates will now begin on April 15th, after it was adjourned following complications with a jury member.

Students at the University of São Paulo (USP) mark the start of the trial at their central campus, Brazil News
To mark the start of the trial, students at the University of São Paulo give a poignant reminder of the number of prisoners killed in the massacre, photo by Marcelo Camargo/ABr.

On October 2, 1992, officers were sent into Carandiru prison to stop a riot that had broken out after a fight between rival gangs escalated; the ensuing carnage left at least 111 prisoners dead, most of which were shot dead by police, many at point-blank range.

The new case will be held in at least four stages, and if found guilty, those accused could face between twelve and thirty years’ imprisonment.

O Globo newspaper drew attention to the fact that at least eight of the first 26 defendants are still on active police service, and many others have continued high-ranking civil servant careers.

To date the only person to face trial over the massacre was Colonel Ubiratan Guimarães, who led the operation; he was subsequently killed in what was officially recorded as an unrelated attack.

The rise of the First Command of the Capital, or PCC – a major criminal group operating inside São Paulo’s prisons, which was recently linked to revenge killings on police officers, supposedly in retaliation for the murder of PCC members – has been linked directly to events at Carandiru.

Chronic overcrowding was identified as one of the main contributing factors to the grizzly death toll at Carandiru: the 3,500-capacity facility – Latin America’s biggest at the time – was reportedly housing between 7,000 and 10,000 inmates at the time of the massacre.

Prison overcrowding is a national problem in Brazil, such as this prison in Goiás state, Brazil News
Prison overcrowding, such as this facility in Goiás state, is a nationwide problem in Brazil, photo by Antônio Cruz/ABr.

The case was not taken to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which labeled officers’ actions as “brutal and savage,” on the condition that prison overcrowding could be reduced.

Yet just days before the new trial, Agência Estado news agency reported that the São Paulo prison population had exceeded 200,000 – more than double the total in 2001 – and that a third of prisons in the state were now even more overcrowded than Carandiru was in 1992.

Marcos Fuchs, associate director at Conectas, one of the most vocal human rights organizations in São Paulo, said that, despite promises by the government to improve conditions in prisons, the situation had not only not improved, but deteriorated in the years since the massacre:

“The situation with criminal factions [such as the PCC] inside prisons has worsened, and there is no longer any room left in the prisons – not one space,” Mr. Fuchs told The Rio Times.

“There need to be fundamental reforms in the criminal justice system and a new consensus between the government, the police and the judiciary which makes use of alternative sentences, such as community service,” Mr. Fuchs concluded, echoing a recent report by the UN.

Human rights organizations across Brazil have denounced the time it has taken to bring the case to trial and the fact that many involved in the 1992 massacre were given leading positions in the state’s security system.

As of June 2012, 550,000 people were in Brazil’s prison system and police detention facilities, according to the ICSP, giving Brazil the fourth largest prison population globally, after the U.S., China, and Russia.

Brazil’s Minister of Justice, José Eduardo Cardozo, reportedly said he would “rather die” than spend time in the Brazilian penitentiary system. Carandiru prison was finally closed in 2002 and demolished.


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