Thursday, January 9, 2014

Graphic Video Highlights Prison Violence in Brazil

Following the release of a highly graphic video depicting the bodies of three decapitated inmates on display in a prison yard after a December riot in a Maranhão state penal facility -- published on the website of Brazil’s Folha de São Paulo -- the footage has  sparked something of a national debate over prison conditions, both in Maranhão and nationwide.

Violence has recently spread from prisons to the streets of Maranhão capital São Luis, where authorities say street gangs orchestrated attacks on buses and police stations last week in response to a crackdown in Pedrinhas prison, the same facility where the video was recorded. Some 60 inmates were killed there in 2013.

On Wednesday, the mounting violence led the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to release a statement expressing concern over the “dire state of prisons in Brazil” and calling on authorities to restore order in Pedrinhas.

Local groups have also called on federal authorities to open an investigation into allegations of human rights abuses in the prison. In a letter sent to Brazilian Attorney General Rodrigo Janot on Tuesday, human rights NGOs Conectas, Justiça Global and the Maranhão Society of Human Rights argued that federal intervention would “enable a more speedy and independent investigation” of conditions in Pedrinhas. The organizations also noted that, ever since the state government ordered military police to take over the facility two weeks ago, there has been little information available about the state of affairs at the prison.

There is an element of local politics to the way the prison violence has gained a national profile as well. As Simon Romero writes for the New York Times, Maranhão is governed by Roseana Sarney, a member of the powerful Sarney family which has dominated politics in the state for decades. Sarney has taken to a state newspaper owned by her family to blame the violence on institutional problems with the Brazilian legal system and on resistance to reforms from prison guards. Romero notes that the video was leaked to Folha by members of the union of penitentiary workers, perhaps in a bid to lash out at Sarney’s attempts to assume control of the Pedrinhas facility.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday saw a rare gesture of civility between Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Henrique Capriles, when the two shook hands during a meeting Maduro convened with state leaders in the capital yesterday. The gathering came in response to public outcry over the brutal murder of beauty queen Monica Spear and her husband on Monday night. While El Nacional reports that the opposition has demanded that the government reassess its security policies, the president did not announce any strategy shift or personnel changes among law enforcement, according to the AP.
  • In Foreign Policy’s Transitions blog, Juan Nagel argues that Venezuela’s security crisis cannot be addressed without reforming lax gun controls and a weak court system with too few judges and prosecutors.
  • According to El Universal, the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has officially replaced Provictima, an agency to support victims of crime and violence created by former President Felipe Calderon, with the newly-launched Executive Commission on Attention to Victims. Animal Politico reports that, as part of the move, Provictima will hand off at least 2,300 unsolved cases of disappearances to the Attorney General’s Office.   
  • Guatemalan daily El Periodico reported on Tuesday that its editor, Jose Ruben Zamora Marroquin, has been notified that a judge has barred him from leaving the country so that he can face criminal charges filed by President Otto Perez Molina. These include allegations that Zamora attempted unsuccessfully to extort the administration, and then published a number of articles and op-ed columns accusing the government of corruption and collusion with organized crime. According to the paper, the court order bans Zamora from engaging in any “verbal or written” actions which endanger the "integrity, security and liberty of the victim.”
  • The Colombian Labor Ministry released a statement yesterday expressing regret over the murder of union leader Ever Luis Marin Rolong in the northern department of Atlantico, calling on police to investigate his assassination on Saturday. EFE notes that U.S. Congressmen George Miller and James McGovern released a report late last year which found that 83 percent of reported union murders went unpunished.
  • In an address yesterday on Colombia’s inroads against poverty, President Juan Manuel Santos said that some 2.5 million Colombians had been lifted out of poverty since his administration took office in 2010, and that 1.3 million had escaped extreme poverty. While he noted that some 31 percent of the population still lives in impoverished conditions, he announced a plan to eradicate extreme poverty in the country over the next decade, El Tiempo reports.
  • The United States Department of State has confirmed that it is continuing talks with Cuban authorities on migration between the two countries. According to the Miami Herald, the dialogues will take place today in Havana, rather than yesterday as initially reported.
  • Cuba continues to roll out new economic reforms. Reuters reports that new regulations published by authorities yesterday will partially privatize the country’s state taxi firm, allowing drivers to lease and maintain their own vehicles in an attempt to improve efficiency.
  • La Razon reports that Bolivian President Evo Morales assumed the chairmanship of the Group of 77 in a ceremony yesterday, presenting ten proposals for the developing country bloc’s long term agenda. Among these are the eradication of hunger, “decolonizing” the world and guaranteeing basic social services as a human right. The AP notes that Morales also used the occasion to advocate for the removal of coca leaf from the banned substances list included in the UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs.
  • Talks to resolve a massively over-budget expansion of the Panama Canal hit a wall yesterday after an Italian members of the international private consortium overseeing construction demanded $1 billion from the canal authority to continue work on the project.