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Brazillian Families Say Bloody Prison Riot Was Premediated

by Mario Osava

"It's a way of doing away with prisoners without using the police"

(IPS) RIO DE JANEIRO -- Dozens of Brazilian families still do not know if their husbands, sons or brothers are still alive in Benfica jail in Rio de Janeiro, where a prison rebellion left at least 31 inmates dead last weekend.

Julia Maria de Jesus doesn't know if she has become a widow. She came to Rio from the town of Itabora’, 50 kms away, to demand information from authorities about her husband, 27, who "was in prison for the first time" after he was arrested seven months ago for robbing a lottery stand.

"He shouldn't have even been there," because he was already tried and sentenced to five years and seven months in prison, and the Benfica detention centre opened a little over a month ago to hold those who are still awaiting trial, she complained to IPS.

"We don't know if they're dead or injured," said a furious Oneida Aparecida, whose brother-in-law is in the jail. "Nobody has given us any information about the situation, the prisoners are shouting that they haven't been given any water or food for five days, and there are sick people in there, including a 70-year-old man, but the authorities won't let the doctors in."

Around 50 relatives of inmates, mainly women, protested Wednesday afternoon outside the Guanabara Palace, the seat of the Rio de Janeiro city government, demanding an official list of those still alive and more humane treatment for the prisoners.

"It's sheer torture. It's as if they wanted to cause disturbances, leaving us in the dark like this," one mother, who preferred not to give her name out of fear of reprisals against her inmate son, told IPS.

"On Monday I saw him in the jail, from a distance. He was alive, but I don't know what has happened since then," she added.

A larger group of people has clustered outside the detention center since the rebellion broke out on Saturday, May 29, with the same aim: to find out what happened to their loved ones.

The Benfica facility, which was recently opened in a poor neighborhood on the north side of Rio, holds more than 800 inmates. It is not a proper prison, but was designed to hold some of the suspects awaiting trial in overcrowded police stations.

On the morning of Saturday May 29, 14 inmates escaped with the help of a group of people that attacked the guards from outside the prison, blasting a hole in the main gate.

A revolt, in which guards were taken hostage, immediately broke out. It lasted 62 hours, until Monday night.

On Sunday, one of the guards held hostage by the inmates was shot, supposedly when he attempted to escape. He died on the way to the hospital.

When the standoff ended late Monday and the rebellious prisoners handed over the eight firearms they had seized from the guards, it was reported that at least 30 prisoners were dead, two of them with their throats slit and many others beheaded, dismembered and charred beyond recognition.

In addition, 16 prisoners were hospitalized.

By Thursday morning, 11 of the bodies were still unidentified, and the names of the 14 prisoners who escaped had not yet been released.

Prison authorities estimated the cost of repairing the detention center at 1.5 million reals (around $480,000). An entire floor of the jail, a refurbished police barracks, was destroyed in the three-day uprising.

According to the official version of events, which was corroborated by the families of inmates, the 'Red Command' a powerful Rio drug gang that controls two-thirds of the prisoners in Benfica, took advantage of the riot to settle scores and execute members of rival gangs.

"It was premeditated," said Julia Maria de Jesus. "It was the fault of Governor Rosinha (Rosangela Matheus, better known by her nickname), who was aware of the risk of a massacre," and allowed prisoners belonging to rival gangs to be incarcerated in the same jail.

"It's a way of doing away with prisoners without using the police," she argued.

Next to her, Analua Carvalho Franco worried about her 22-year-old brother, who was arrested two months ago when he "gave a ride to a former gang-member" on his motorcycle-taxi, a form of transportation that has become common in many Brazilian cities.

"He was charged with five crimes," including possession of firearms, trafficking and robbery, but "he is a worker," and the friend he was transporting was an ex-convict who had already served his sentence, said the young woman.

Edson Genuino, who took part in Wednesday's demonstration outside city hall along with his wife, was also worried for the life of his 19-year-old son, who was serving a 32-month sentence for assault.

Mass killings like the one in Benfica have swelled the ranks of the movement of relatives of prisoners, who in some cities, like Rio, have organised themselves in associations.

Brazil's most notorious prison massacre occurred in 1992, when police killed 111 of the 7,000 inmates packed into the Carandiru prison in the southern state of Sao Paulo.

A film on the Carandiru tragedy drew more than four million movie-goers to cinemas around the country last year.

The prison population is growing fast in this South American country of 178 million, doubling in less than a decade to over 300,000 today. Penitentiary conditions have long drawn criticism from human rights groups, which report rampant abuse by guards and severe overcrowding.

The anxiety of the prisoners' relatives and friends grows with each riot and revolt, which have become almost routine, and sometimes end in tragedy as in the cases of Carandiru and Benfica.

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Albion Monitor June 3, 2004 (

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