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Prison Beheadings in Brazil Prompt UN to Request Probe

A video showing three tortured and decapitated inmates in a Brazilian prison has prompted the United Nations to request an investigation into prison violence in the northern state of Maranhao.

The video, published Jan. 7 on the website of Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, has drawn attention to gang violence in Pedrinhas prison in state capital Sao Luis. Sixty people were killed last year in the Maranhao penitentiary system, according to the National Council of Justice.

“We regret having to, once again, express concern at the dire state of prisons in Brazil,” the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement. The UN urges “authorities to take immediate action to restore order in Pedrinhas prison and other prisons throughout the country, as well as to reduce overcrowding.”

There are 800 prison deaths a year in Brazil, according to Jose Vicente da Silva Filho, a consultant for Sao Paulo’s military police and former national security secretary.

“Barbaric law rules in the prisons where it’s so crowded people sleep standing up,” Silva Filho said by phone. “It’s a scene of total terror where new prisoners make alliances with the groups in control, and authorities negotiate with criminal factions.”


The Justice Ministry Jan. 7 helped transfer 22 inmates allegedly involved in the violence to federal facilities. The National Justice Council report cites overcrowding as the main factor behind the creation of criminal prison factions.

Attorney General Rodrigo Janot is considering recommending measures that would strip powers from the governor and temporarily install federal control. There is no timetable for his decision, according to the Attorney General press office.

Maranhao prisons, which are designed to hold 3,421 inmates, have 4,663 prisoners, according to numbers provided by the state government press office.

Federal public safety troops have been present in the capital of the northern state since October, and Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo has asked that they remain in the prisons until Feb. 23. The troops will work with a division commanded by the state’s military police to reinforce security in prisons in the Sao Luis metropolitan area.

The Money

The federal government from 2003 to 2013 sent 55 million reais ($23 million) to Maranhao to add 1,621 spaces in the state penitentiary system. The money for two of the seven units to be built was returned after the project wasn’t completed within the 18-month deadline, the Justice Ministry press office said in an e-mailed statement.

Maranhao is the second-least developed state in Brazil, with the country’s lowest income, according to the UN Human Development Index.

Brazil had around 550,000 prison inmates as of last March, according to a UN report. Of these, 217,000 are in pretrial detention, waiting months to see a public defender and years for their cases to be resolved, the report said.

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