Brazil's military police storm jails to quell riots

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The Independent US

Brazilian military police attempted to bring wide-scale prison riots under control yesterday in 32 São Paolo jails and to release thousands of civilian hostages caught in crossfire that has killed at least 12 inmates.

Brazilian military police attempted to bring wide-scale prison riots under control yesterday in 32 São Paolo jails and to release thousands of civilian hostages caught in crossfire that has killed at least 12 inmates.

Officers stormed jails and fired rubber bullets at prisoners late on Sunday, while hundreds of shock troops, armed with revolvers and rifles, were stationed outside as reinforcements if negotiations failed.

Many of the 7,400 hostages, who are mainly family members visiting jailed relatives, fear a massacre and preferred to remain as a human shield until a settlement is reached. There are considerable numbers of children and pregnant women among them.

Authorities blamed Sunday's violence on a convict gang which calls itself the "First Capital Command" and which is active in smuggling weapons and drugs behind bars.

They staged the protest, which eventually involved 15,000 inmates, after 10 of their group were transferred from Carandiru prison, the most notoriously overcrowded penitentiary in Latin America, to a smaller jail after they were accused of killing five fellow inmates. Using mobile phones obtained by bribing guards, convict leaders co-ordinated the revolt that began at midday.

It took place during conjugal visits, and inmates initially set mattresses alight to make a smokescreen. Across the jail system, which a Brazilian congressman recently described as "a reinvention of hell", hundreds of fires still smouldered.

News bulletins showed two prisoners' bodies being dragged back inside the cellblocks after the police siege, and helicopter footage filmed above a smaller jail showed lines of naked inmates forced to squat against the wall, hands behind their heads, prior to the release of captive women and children.

Human rights activists have long complained that gangs control Brazil's prisons and routinely punish and intimidate other convicts. Many of the 94,000 prisoners in São Paolo assemble arsenals in their cells, and there is speculation that these riots masked a purge of defeated leaders after an internal power struggle.

Jail uprisings and escapes are commonplace in Brazil - due to severe overcrowding, police brutality, inhumane conditions, and lack of sanitation - but the scale of Sunday's riot alarmed the public. The Justice Minister, Jose Gregori, said: "This synchronised explosion is an event without precedent in Brazil. It is serious, but authorities are reacting sensibly ... without resorting to violence."

His assertion was contradicted by a hostage released from Carandiru who claimed police had executed some prisoners on Sunday afternoon. Clara Martins Kalil, a lawyer, said: "I was there visiting cellblock four and I saw police shooting three prisoners in the back." Holding up a shell she found on the ground, she added: "I am taking it to be analysed."

Carandiru, which is at the heart of this stand-off, was built to accommodate 3,500 inmates but over 8,000 are packed into its cells. Some prisoners are tied to the window bars to maximise floor space, and new beds must sometimes be placed above the squat lavatories because they won't fit anywhere else. Allegations of torture are routine. Police massacred 111 inmates nine years ago.

Campaigners are calling for the concrete behemoth in the centre of São Paulo to be closed and for the convicts to transferred to more spacious facilities outside the city.

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