Monday, August 5, 2013

Two Decades After Massacre, Brazilian Prisons Have Improved Little

On Saturday, a court in Sao Paulo sentenced 25 policemen to 624 years in prison each for their role in a prison massacre that left 111 inmates dead over 20 years ago. The tragedy has been widely condemned, but prison reform advocates in the country say many of the conditions which contributed to the violence have not changed in the years since.

On October 2, 1992, military police stormed Sao Paulo's Carandiru prison to suppress a riot which started as a fight between two rival inmates over an exercise space, but had snowballed into a rebellion in which the prisoners effectively took control of the entire facility. Despite the fact that the inmates had shown a willingness to end the uprising and negotiate with police, officials ordered some 300 armed shock troops to storm the prison by force. According to a 2001 report by the Commission to Observe the Carandiru Trials, an umbrella group of legal studies and human rights organizations, what followed was a bloodbath:

“According to all officers involved […] the prisoners ran for cover as soon as the troops entered the cell block, offering no resistance. They quickly took the ground floor and moved up the building, shooting prisoners in the head and chest as they went with machine guns, assault rifles, and automatic pistols. Some officers also used dogs to attack already wounded prisoners. After the smoke cleared at 6:30 p.m., 515 shots had been fired, killing 103 prisoners, with another eight dead from wounds caused by knives and other objects. Another 130 prisoners and twenty-three policemen were left wounded. No policemen were killed.”
Saturday’s verdict ends the latest in a series of separate trials of police officers accused of executing inmates during the 1992 massacre. In April, a separate group of 23 police officers were sentenced to 156 years in prison for their role in the deaths of 13 inmates in Carandiru. Colonel Ubiratan Guimarães, the officer who is credited with ordering police to storm the prison, was sentenced to 632 years in prison in 2001, although an appeals court overturned the conviction in 2006.

As O Globo reports, the jury in the latest case found the 25 policemen guilty of the murder of 52 people, and Judge Rodrigo Tellini de Aguirre sentenced each of them to 12 years in prison for each victim. Though this is a total of 624 years, none will serve more than 30 in accordance with Brazilian law. The defense has said it will appeal the decision, and the officers will remain free pending the appeal. The nine of them who remain on active duty, however, will be suspended, according to the paper.


In spite of the recent convictions, the Brazilian prison system appears to have changed little since the massacre. Many of the factors which spurred prisoners to riot on that day -- overcrowding fueled by pre-trial detentions, abuse, extremely unhygienic conditions -- continue to this day. As Marcos Fuchs, associate director of the Sao Paulo-based human rights group Conectas, said in April: “Judging by the current situation in Brazilian prisons and by the discourse of many politicians and much of the population, we have learned practically nothing from Carandiru.”


Conectas describes the Brazilian penal system as “medieval,” which it blames in part on a prevalent attitude of “penal populism,” in which officials respond to insecurity by pursuing policies which promote mass incarceration.  In November 2012 the organization, along with partner NGO the National Prison Pastoral, submitted a list of ten urgent measures to Congress and the Sao Paulo state government which they argue can drastically improve prison conditions in the country.



News Briefs

  • On the subject of prisons, on Saturday La Tribuna reported that Honduran President Porfirio Lobo made the announcement that he would send a “military presence” to the country’s main prison, the National Marco Aurelio Soto Penitentiary. The move comes on the heels of a deadly prison riot in the institution which left three dead and another 12 wounded, including three guards. Lobo claimed that the purposed of the move would be to “end the reign of criminals in our prison system, which has done so much damage to our society.”
  • The Associated Press points out that the Honduran president made the announcement one day after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a report which found that Honduras’ prison system suffers from “structural deficiencies which have led to its collapse,” and urged the government to enact social policies to address the root problems of its prison crisis. “It is essential that States’ criminal policies not be merely repressive, but should also be preventive in nature, with policies and programs for crime prevention,” the commission argued. According to the New York Times, the report was commissioned in response to the deadly prison fire in February 2012 that killed 362 people, and found that prison authorities had known about risk of fire since at least 2004.
  • Although there is reason for optimism that peace talks in Havana can end Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict, violence against human rights defenders in the country continues, and even appears to be on the rise. El Tiempo reports that human rights watchdog group Somos Defensores found that 37 activists were killed in the first half of this year, which is a 27 percent increase from the year before.
  • After a marriage equality law was passed by Uruguay’s Congress in April and signed into law by President Jose Mujica the following month, it goes into effect today. El Pais reports that a civil registry in Montevideo has granted the first marriage license to a gay couple in the country’s history this morning.  The BBC notes that Uruguay is the second country in Latin America to pass same-sex marriage legislation, and has a good overview of the state of the debate around the issue in the hemisphere.
  • The Economist has an overview of the recent protests in Lima in recent weeks, which were triggered by a controversial deal in Congress to split top posts in the Supreme Court, Ombudsman’s office and board of the Central Bank. The magazine notes that Peru has a history of discontent with its presidents once they have spent several months in office, and President Ollanta Humala appears to be faring better with public opinion than his two previous predecessors.  
  • The Miami Herald reports on the status of an environmental initiative in Ecuador, in which the government of President Rafael Correa announced it would leave some 846 million barrels of crude oil untouched in order to preserve its Yasuní National Park, so long as international donors covered roughly half of the oil’s $7.2 billion market price. Despite support for the plan from the UN, it has raised less than one-tenth of the amount sought, and the Correa administration is believed to be considering backing out of the project.
  • Amnesty International has labeled five individuals imprisoned in Cuba “prisoners of conscience,” and is calling for their immediate release. As the AP reports, the New York-based rights group claimed in April 2011 that it was not aware of any prisoners of conscience, but has used the term to refer to a number of individuals who have been detained since, which have largely been released after a period of several months. The five are the only prisoners of conscience that AI recognizes on the island.
  • The L.A. Times reports on the state of Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, where northbound Central American migrants are increasingly falling prey to kidnapping schemes and violence linked to organized crime.  President Enrique Peña Nieto has announced plans to improve patrolling and institute a new system of checkpoints along the border, including biometric screening kiosks paid for by the U.S. government, although there are serious questions about whether the new plans will have a direct impact on migrant insecurity.
  • Over the weekend the New York Times ran an interesting overview of the way in Jamaica and other Caribbean countries are dealing with the rising cost of food imports. In response, the governments in Jamaica, Haiti and the Bahamas are instituting “food security” policies which give priority to locally-grown products, and encouraging communities to plant gardens to meet their needs.