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‘It Is Not Out of Control’: Officials Panic as 26 Die in Third Brazilian Prison Riot

A war between rival drug gangs has triggered a third massacre in an overcrowded prison in Brazil. After a 14-hour riot, police found 26 inmates charred and beheaded and had little time to begin identifying them before yet another disturbance began on Monday.

Prisoners at the Alcaçuz prison in Rio Grande do Norte, a northeastern state, began attacking fellow inmates identified with the Red Command (CV) and its ally, the RN Crime Syndicate (RN). The perpetrators are believed to be members of Brazil’s largest drug trafficking gang, the First Capital Command (PCC). The PCC members burned and beheaded most of their victims, leaving an aftermath officials described as the most violent incident of its nature in the history of Rio Grande do Norte. Police have yet to confirm that the 26 dead are the only ones killed, suspecting some bodies may remain hidden, and have yet to identify the victims.

Regional Justice Minister Wallber Virgolino told reporters that the leaders of the riot have been “isolated” and will be removed from the prison soon, according to the Brazilian newspaper O Globo.

The massacre is the third of its kind this year: On New Year’s Eve, members of the CV-allied Familia do Norte (FDN) killed 56 PCC members in the Anisio Jobim Prison Complex of Manaus (Compaj), in northwest Brazil. The neighboring Antonio Trindade Penal Institute (Ipat) also descended into chaos, allowing dozens of prisoners to escape. Currently, Brazilian police estimate over one hundred inmates remain on the loose in the Manaus area.

A week later, PCC members killed 33 FDN members in a prison in Roraima, on the Venezuelan border. As in the first riot, these bodies were beheaded and severely dismembered, some with their hearts torn out.

While police announced Sunday that the situation in Alcaçuz was under control, that appeared to change on Monday morning, when yet another riot broke out in the prison. That situation is developing at press time, though initial reports indicate it is a less violent situation than that occurring over the weekend, and officials tell Reuters a SWAT team has entered the facility. Some prisoners have taken to the roof of the prison to fly flags emblazoned with gang symbols.

In addition to the second disturbance in Alcaçuz, police reported that another riot had broken out in another prison in Rio Grande do Norte. Guards at the Raimundo Nonato Provisional Prison, in the state capital of Natal, lost control of the prison around 3AM local time, when inmates who had apparently heard of the Alcaçuz riot attempted to tear down the prison walls and flee a potentially similar situation. Some prisoners also attempted to kill fellow inmates in an isolation ward. Both attempts failed, and police say the situation was brought under control in about two hours.

Raimundo Nonato is a smaller prison, housing 550 but built for a maximum population of 166. Alcaçuz’s population, Reuters reports, is currently 1,150; it was built to house up to 620 inmates.

O Globo notes that local officials in Rio Grande do Norte have yet to confirm whether the riots in their state have anything to do with the New Year riots in Amazonas state, on the other side of the country. The two largest gangs, the PCC and the CV, have a nationwide presence. Those that have attacked the PCC, however, appear to be local groups; the FDN makes its home in the northwest, while the RN Syndicate is mostly active in the state it is named after.

O Globo notes that Brazilian Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes, who initially denied gang involvement in the first riot, claimed, following the second riot, that the situation was “not out of control.”

De Moraes issued a statement Monday “lamenting” the deaths in the latest riot and heralding “the commitment of the police forces that have acted in defense of society, avoiding flight and controlling the situation.”

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