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Brazil prison riot leaves at least 38 dead

Police entering a Rio de Janeiro prison Tuesday after a three-day rebellion found the bodies of at least 38 inmates, some of them mutilated.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Police entering a prison after a three-day rebellion found the bodies of at least 38 inmates, some of them mutilated, authorities said Tuesday.

Authorities were still securing the Benfica detention center and feared they could find more bodies, said Raphael Martins, a Rio police spokesman. At least 14 of the 900 inmates escaped and three were recaptured.

The revolt started Saturday and ended Monday night after police gave in to a demand by inmates to separate prisoners belonging to different gangs. A 42-year-old guard who was held hostage was later shot dead by inmates Sunday as he tried to escape the prison in the northern Rio district of Leopoldina.

Relatives of inmates camped outside the detention center claimed the guard had been killed by police, who mistook him for a fleeing prisoner.

Lawmaker sickened by sight
Investigators suspect rival gangs, who routinely run drug trafficking operations from inside Brazil’s prisons, used the chaos of the uprising to settle scores.

Rio state legislator Geraldo Moreira said he counted 28 bodies.

“I saw severed heads. I saw body parts thrown on the ground and in the garbage,” Moreira told the Jovem Pan radio station. “It turned my stomach and, after a while, I had to walk out.”

Rescue workers were going from cell to cell in the sprawling lockup to try to determine an exact death toll, said Claudia Moraes, a police spokeswoman.

“It could take all day to get a final body count,” she said.

The Rio revolt came slightly more than a month after prisoners at an overcrowded prison in the Amazon state of Rondonia killed 14 fellow prisoners.

The Rio prison uprising began when detainees attempting to escape broke through the main gate of the detention center. When police intervened, prisoners attacked officers, grabbed their guns and took 26 guards and staffers hostage.

Brazil’s lockups are rife with gang members, many of whom run drug empires from behind prison walls using smuggled cell phones. The country’s most notorious organized crime figure, Luiz Fernando da Costa, is accused of coordinating a campaign from inside Brazil’s most secure prison to terrorize Rio days before the city’s famed Carnival in 2003.

Amnesty International's criticism
Rebellions and jailbreaks are also common in Brazilian prisons, which are often criticized by human rights groups for overcrowding and abuses.

Amnesty International last week issued a report condemning “cruel, inhuman or degrading conditions” in Brazil’s prisons and youth detention centers, where 285,000 inmates are held in a system built for 180,000.

“Overcrowding, poor sanitation, limited access to health services, persistent use of torture, riots and prisoner-on-prisoner violence were regularly reported” to authorities in 2003, the report said.

Moreira said the uprisings in Rio and Rondonia are evidence that the prison system needs a complete overhaul.

“The system, as it is today, is nothing more than a machine to destroy human lives,” he said.

In Sao Paulo, 250 miles south of Rio de Janeiro, six heavily armed men marched into a detention center Monday and ordered the five guards to release the center’s 188 prisoners, police said in a statement.

Police said 145 prisoners escaped, but 43 chose to remain at the center. Police later recaptured 67 of those who escaped.