- Image 1 of 2
- Image 2 of 2
MANAUS, Brazil – Fury was rising among the relatives of dozens of inmates killed in prison riots as they demanded the release of the bodies for burial, more than two days after prisoners attacked each other in several facilities in the northern Brazilian state of Amazonas.
Fifty-five inmates were killed Sunday and Monday at four prisons in the city of Manaus, most of them choked or stabbed to death in the latest outburst of violence in Brazil's notoriously overcrowded and gang-plagued prison system. Little is known about what exactly provoked the clashes, but officials said the killings were the result of infighting inside one fractured criminal group.
Outside the Manaus forensic institute Wednesday, victims' relatives were left waiting for hours in sizzling heat, with no water, food or information about when they might retrieve the bodies for burial. One woman fainted and had to be carried to a nearby car.
When voices started rising inside the building, two police officers intervened and asked relatives to leave and wait outside.
"It's humiliating to be waiting here," an agitated Martinete Lira said while waiting for the corpse of her nephew. "This massacre happened once, it happened twice and it will happen again!"
The killings have led to renewed calls for new and better prisons, and the anger is providing another challenge to the administration of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, which has pledged to clean up Brazil's festering jails amid a broader crime-fighting agenda.
Later Wednesday afternoon, 22 corpses were eventually freed on top of 15 that were released a few days ago. The rest were still stacked in a temporary refrigerated unit lent to the institute to help it deal with all the bodies.
Adding to the anger, Amazonas Gov. Wilson Lima said the state would pay no indemnity to families of victims. "The government has no money for that," Lima told reporters at a press conference Tuesday.
For Father Joao Poli, who has been visiting inmates inside the state's prisons for nearly a decade, the government's lack of consideration for family members is a reflection of how prisoners are treated inside the penitentiaries.
"The exploitation of prisoners is dramatic," Poli, an Italian native, told The Associated Press. Poli was among a handful of religious workers who came to the forensic institute to distribute sandwiches and offer car rides from one agency to another.
The priest criticized privatizations in the Amazonas prison system.
All four prisons where killings happened Sunday and Monday were run under a public-private partnership with the same company, Umanizzare, according to the state prison secretary.
"More prisoners, more money," Poli said. He said that once at a prison in the remote interior of the state, he saw over 30 people packed in a cell with eight mattresses.
Umanizzare, which runs six prisons in Amazonas, said the state remains responsible for public security inside the facilities. The company is in charge of nearly everything else, from food to maintenance, medical attention and utilities.
In many of Brazil's prisons, badly outnumbered guards scramble to retain power over an ever-growing population of inmates and a strong gang presence.
With roughly 726,000 people incarcerated, the country's penitentiary system has an official capacity of only about half that number, or 368,000, according to official data from 2016. In Amazons state, 11,390 inmates occupy prisons built to hold 2,354.
"It is absolutely necessary to build new prisons," said Claudio Lamachia, who was chairman of Brazil's bar association until the end of last year. "It's a way of investing in public security."
Lamachia, who has regularly visited prisons across Brazil, said it is not uncommon for prisoners to spend several days in police cars, waiting for a space to become available.
The dire state of Brazil's prison system is well known and massacres have happened before.
In January 2017, more than 120 inmates died when Brazil's most powerful criminal gang, First Capital Command, and the rival Family of the North gang clashed over control of drug-trafficking routes in northern states. The violence lasted several weeks, spreading to various states.
The Anisio Jobim Prison Complex, the jail in Manaus where 15 inmates died Sunday, was the scene of gruesome fighting two years ago that left 56 prisoners dead, many with their heads cut off or their hearts and intestines ripped out.
Public security experts say that until Brazil builds new prisons and invests in existing ones, it will struggle to fully regain control of its inmates, many of whom depend on prison gangs for food, money or survival.
Telling about a tour of a prison in another Brazilian state, Lamachia said the guards were only allowed into cellblocks by inmates to deliver food, which would then be distributed by the gangs.
"Prisons today are a time bomb. Tragedies waiting to happen," the lawyer said.
For years, officials in Brazil have placed their hopes on the privatization of prisons. But experts pointed to the early 2017 killings, many of which occurred in prisons run in partnership with private companies, and to this week's events as a sign that it is not a solution.
"They can't hand the prisons over to a private entity and then wash their hands," Lamachia said.
AP video journalist Victor Caivano reported this story in Manaus, and AP writer Diane Jeantet reported from Rio de Janeiro.