What's causing Brazil's prison massacres?

Sacha Darke and Chris Garces
Monday, 9 January 2017

Last week incidents of extreme violence in a Central or South American prison again made the headlines – this time in the Amazonian region of Brazil. On 1 January, prisoners affiliated to the Northern Family gang (FDN) took control of the closed unit of the Anísio Jobim complex in Manaus. By the time prisoners handed the unit back to authorities, 56 prisoners were reported to have been killed on wings controlled by the First Command of the Capital (PCC), Brazil’s largest criminal gang. As many other violent conflicts over prison territory, some victims’ bodies were mutilated. Severed heads were displayed to mark the FDN’s new territory. Corpses were thrown over the wall for media consumption.

On 6 January, PCC affiliates killed a reported 33 non-gang-affiliated prisoners in the neighbouring city of Boa Vista, on the security wing of the semi-open unit Monte Cristo. Trophy videos of decapitated and quartered bodies were circulated on WhatsApp. On 8 January, five more prisoners were killed at a second prison in Manaus, Raimundo Vidal Pessoa, which had been reopened a week earlier to accommodate survivors of Anísio Jobim.

The First Command of the Capital

The PCC formed 25 years ago in São Paulo in response to the police killing of 111 mostly first-time offenders at the now-infamous Carandiru prison. The PCC now governs 200,000 paulista prisoners, and perhaps a million favela residents. Through its regulation of illicit markets; its ‘rules of coexistence; and its parallel systems of dispute resolution, the PCC has actually reduced violence on both sides of the prison wall (see Karina Biondi’s 2010/2016 ethnography, Sharing this Walk). Much of the emerging analysis of the Anísio Jobim, Monte Cristo and Raimundo Vidal Pessoa tragedies centres on the fact that the PCC is now disputing prison and urban spaces on the opposite side of the country.

Last October, the PCC ended a 20-year truce with Brazil’s second major gang, Rio de Janeiro’s Red Command (the CV), claiming it had formed alliances with the PCC’s northern rivals, including the FDN. These latest prison massacres are only the latest of a number of violent contests between the PCC and CV allies in the Amazonian region in the past three months. Their territorial skirmishes take place both in the prisons and the streets.

As for the causes of scission between the PCC and CV, most commentators have focused on their attempts to monopolise the eastward 'cocaine trail' (from the Andes to Europe), which increasingly gets routed across the Amazon basin. Others who look to prison conditions focus on national authorities’ long-term failures to regulate the cellblocks, or to the overcrowded, brutalising conditions in which most prisoners are held. Abandoned, violence becomes a normalised aspect of the prisoner’s material and psychological survival.

Prisoner collectives

What remains missing from the commentary is consideration of the roles that prisoner collectives, including self-proclaimed criminal gangs, typically play in providing alternative governance institutions in Latin American prison spaces, making work and life more ordered and predictable, and less life-threatening as a result (compare David Skarbek's 2014 Social Order of the Underworld). Importantly, prisoner collectives can only operate effectively with the tacit agreement of prison staff. Latin American prison order, in other words, is co-produced.

What the Amazonian prison massacres therefore represent, like the Carandiru massacre a quarter century earlier, are not so much examples but disruptions of ordinary prison governance. As a result of drug war policy and failures of political will, Latin America is fast becoming what we have called ‘the new mass carceral zone’. Further garrisoning, segregation, and guilt by association – namely, the further militarising of drug-war prisons – will only serve to create divisions among prisoners, and between prisoners and their guardians. It might also distract from more humane experiments in the region in recruiting prisoner collectives as productive participants in their own 'governance and reform'.

Sacha Darke is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at University of Westminster. Chris Garces is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University.

Together, Darke and Garces have edited two collections on Latin American prison ethnographies: ‘Informal dynamics of survival in Latin American prisons', Prison Service Journal, 229, and (along with Luis Duno-Gottberg and Andrés Antillano) Carceral Communities: Troubling Prison Worlds in 21st Century Latin America, under contract with University of Pennsylvania Press.