The Vicious Violence Cycle

by | Jan 9, 2005

Prison conditions in Brazil have set off riots. Photo by Guiherme Rodriguez

I was working at the Global Justice Center, a Brazilian human rights NGO when the prison rebellion at the Benfica House of Detention begun on May 29, 2004. During the 62 hours that the riot lasted, 88 inmates escaped, 30 more were killed, many others were seriously injured, and one prison guard was murdered. It was Rio’s most violent prison riot and the third in importance in Brazil after Carandiru, São Paulo and Urso Branco, Maranhão. Suddenly, the generalities and academic research on state violence and its root causes of repression became a hard, specific and immediate reality.

I already knew from my readings that to talk about State violence and repression in Brazil, and in particular in the state of Rio de Janeiro, is to make an understatement. Corruption, fraud, slave labor, lack of access to health care and education services, police brutality towards street children and bad treatments inflicted to adolescents inside juvenile facilities are all too common. In 2003, the police alone killed 1,195 civilians reaching an average of 3.2 civilians killed every day, according to the Global Justice Center’s 2003 annual report on police violence in Brazil.

Most of these killings occurred in shantytowns and in the most impoverished suburbs. Indeed, in 2003, 92% of the homicides committed in Rio de Janeiro took place in the western and northern zones where there is a high concentration of poor populations, the Rio Civil Police admit in their December 2003 Weekly Bulletin.

Thus, Brazilian prison conditions reflect that violence against the young and the poor: 54.2% of the Brazilian prison population is under the age of thirty years old, 10.4% are analphabets, 69.5% have not completed elementary school (grade 9), and 98% of inmates lived in poor or modest economic conditions prior to their arrest, according to the previously mentioned Global Justice Center report, referring to a study by the Center on Security and Citizenship, Cândido Mendes University.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Nigel Rodley says that torture is “widespread and systematic” in prisons and other detention centers. Guards and other officials use punishment for improper behavior, but also as a means of ensuring authority and control over the increasing prison population. Prisons conditions are notoriously harsh and riots often arise.

But when the riot broke out, every word that I had read erupted into harsh reality.

The circumstances in which the killings were perpetrated are absolutely horrible. Inmates identified with one criminal gang (Red Commando) murdered other inmates identified with a second criminal gang (Third Commando). Before being killed by the red Commando leaders, the inmates were accused and tried before a fake tribunal. The “judges” (the leaders of the Red Commando) sentenced the “accused” inmates to death by torture or offered redemption through bad treatments, humiliation and conversion to the Red Commando. Weeks after the events, the police were still unable to identify all the victims because many of them were intensively wounded or mutilated.

In the hours following the riot, I, and other members of the organizations working closely with prisoners, struggled hard to make sense of this tragedy and to understand how, as a society or as human beings, we create conditions in which such barbaric acts are possible.

First, we are struck by the State’s role in this case. Several months before the events occurred in Benfica, many human rights organizations warned the government about the dangers of mixing members of different criminal gangs in the same prison blocks. Several inmates interviewed by our organization already predicted the bloodshed. Yet, mixing members of different criminal gangs was part of a new strategy adopted by Rio de Janeiro State Governor, Anthony Garotinho. He argued that the objective was to neutralize gang action and power in the prison system. There are many reasons to be skeptical of his position. The State itself classifies inmates by criminal gang. Despite the fact that most inmates have no affiliation or relationship with drug traffickers or criminal gangs, the Police classify inmates into one gang or another on the basis of their home address i.e. corresponding to the gang controlling the drug market in the shantytown where they usually come from. Thus, if the objective is to reduce gang power, the State should review its own policy in the first place. Second, it seems obvious that by putting eight times more members of the Red Commando than of the Third Commando in the same block at Benfica, we exacerbated the tensions and the fear among prisoners and put at risk the lives of hundreds of inmates and prison guards.

Further, although Benfica was a new jail—inaugurated one month before the April 5, 2004—it presented many serious problems of administration, infrastructure and security. On May 11, 2004, during a visit of the Community Council, the prison director reported that the some parts of the prison had already collapsed, that water was infiltrating and that bars were missing in many windows as they were used by inmates to make weapons. Moreover, there were a total of 4 guards and 25 retired military police officers with no specific training at all times to look over some 862 inmates. The prisoners reported various acts of torture, lack of resources (paper, soap, mattresses, etc), increasing feelings of insecurity due to gang mixing in the same units, to the proximity of many shantytowns controlled by the Red Commando, and to the fact that the military police let weapons circulated in the prison. These facts are not newspaper or adversary accusations; the Community Council of Rio de Janeiro, which has legal jurisdiction to monitor Rio prison facilities, published these findings on May 11, 2004.

To counter State repression, it is also important to understand that the inmates are not the monsters and the devils that the State governor and the general population supporting harsh criminal law policies too often like to believe. First, all the individuals killed at Benfica were in preventive detention i.e. they were waiting for their trial and were still considered innocent under the law. Further, in the days following the events, O Globo newspapers reported the story of 24-year-old David de Paula Pereira, homeless and mentally ill, who was arrested after having shot rocks at parked cars in a street of Copacabana in March 2004. They also described the stories of nine other young men accused of theft or robberies in the south zone of Rio , including theft of a pair of running shoes (Francisco da Costa), robbery of a tourist backpack (Leomel Gregório), robbery of a cell phone (Alessandro da Silva), attempted robbery of a watch and of one real (Wagner Souza Santos) and other robbery of 52 reals (Carlos Alvarenga). Among the 20 victims identified by the police, 19 were under 30 years old, 3 were homeless men, 17 were accused of non violent crimes (foremost, drugassociated crimes and theft in rich neighborhoods), at least 3 had serious mental health problems, and none of them had any relationship or association with the criminal gangs.

Finally, we should note that all the killed and tortured inmates were extremely poor individuals since the rich and powerful inmates were kept under custody in a special prison unit. Thanks to Brazilian laws, elite members of Brazilian society, including judges, lawyers, government officials, police officers, and every person with a university degree, have the right to a special prison, separate from poorer inmates, with several privileges and “general detention conditions that are adequate to human dignity.”(Section 295, Brazilian Code of Criminal Procedure). Among those kept in this special prison in Benfica, two are prisoners accused of embezzlement for a total of US $33 million.

Despite having attracted huge international attention, the State refused to conduct any serious investigation to identify the persons responsible for this tragedy and, to this day, it did not review its policy to classify inmates by criminal gangs and to let them cohabit in the same prison blocks. For example, human rights organizations had already sent several warnings concerning the situation at the Prison Complex of Bangu. Instead, the government decided to close Benfica and to transfer the surviving prisoners to other prison units. As a result, only in June and July 2004, there were four other incidents in Rio’s prisons causing further deaths and injuries. Asked to comment the situation at public hearings organized by civil society, Astério Pereira, State Secretary for the Prison System, washed his hands and blamed the press for alimenting gang power in saying that “some reporters should go through an episode such as that of Tim Lopes,” referring to a reporter who was assassinated in June 2002 by drug traffickers in Rio. When violence and repression is all a society has to offer, it should come as no surprise that it is then learned and reproduced behind prison walls.

Fall 2004/Winter 2005Volume III, Number 1

Marie-Eve Sylvestre is a LL.B. (Montréal), LL.M. at Harvard Law School, and is pursuing her SJD degree at Harvard Law School. She is a Frank Knox and Byse Fellow 2004-2005. A footnoted version of this essay can be obtained at

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