Brazil’s long-lasting prison massacre

The consequences of the Carandiru massacre haunt Brazil 25 years on.
Photo: Agência Brasil Fotografias/CC BY 2.0/Flickr
Photo: Agência Brasil Fotografias/CC BY 2.0/Flickr

October 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the Carandiru massacre in Brazil. On 2 October 1992, to control a prisoner riot, military police invaded São Paulo’s House of Detention, known as Carandiru, officially killing 111 prisoners.

Twenty-five years on, the consequences of the Carandiru massacre continue to emerge, with the incident considered a milestone in the debate surrounding the penitentiary system and human rights in Brazil.

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The riot began in the morning with a fight between prisoners in one of the House of Detention’s pavilions. At the time it was Latin America’s largest prison, hosting more than eight thousand people. With the prisoners in control of the house, the authorities initially decided to cut the electricity and water supplies.

Around 3pm, a military police invasion, carrying lethal weapons, was authorized, lasting no more than half-an-hour. Preliminary investigations following the massacre found evidence that the victims had been executed without signs of a violent retaliation. During the first three days, the total number of deaths remained unknown and survivors said the official figure of 111 prisoners was underestimated.

Brazil’s human rights fragility

The Carandiru massacre made headlines and exposed the fragile state of human rights in Brazil, just seven years after the end of military dictatorship in 1985.

The country’s government was condemned by the Organization of American States (OAS) and made a commitment to prosecute and legally punish those responsible for the massacre. However, it was only in 2006 that the first judicial sentence was set, acquitting the colonel Ubiratan Guimarães, head of Carandiru’s military invasion.

In 2013, 25 soldiers were condemned for their participation in the massacre, but another 74 were acquitted in 2016. Despite Brazil’s commitment to the OAS, the apparent impunity of more potential participants of the Carandiru massacre remains a reality even after two-and-a-half decades.

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Nevertheless, the events of that day/night went far beyond exposing the weakness of the Brazilian judicial system. The massacre opened up discussion on human rights in the country, focused on the victims being male, mainly under 30, with low levels of education and imprisoned for small crimes, such as petty theft. Furthermore, around 80% of them had just been arrested and were waiting for further hearings.

These characteristics persist in the Brazilian penitentiary system today. At present, Brazil has the fourth largest prison population on the planet, following the US, China and Russia. According to the country’s National Penitentiary Department, this population has tripled since 2000, and is 55% formed of individuals aged between 18 and 29. Moreover, 61% of the prison population are black or pardos (mixed-race), and 80% reached primary education level at the most.

The occupation of an empty space

A further consequence of the Carandiru massacre has been the rise of gangs which now partially control the penitentiary system in Brazil. Following the massacre, under the pressure of public opinion, the Brazilian government began relaxing their authority over the prisons, which gave rise to the emergence of these gangs.

An expression of the power of prison gangs appeared in 2006, when one group ‘paralyzed’ São Paulo, Brazil’s largest and richest city, by promoting attacks against public security institutions, such as courts, police stations, policemen and firefighters. In just a few days, 493 homicides were reported, according to São Paulo’s Security Secretary.

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The conflict between the gangs for the control for the penitentiary system has continued to cause deaths. Last year, in Manaus, North of Brazil, a riot in a prison lasted more than twelve hours and culminated in the murder of more than 60 prisoners – the highest number of deaths inside a Brazilian prison since the Carandiru massacre.

In January 2016, another conflict between gangs caused 33 deaths in a prison in the state of Roraima, also north of Brazil. In 2004, a riot caused the death of 30 prisoners and a prison officer, this time in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

A lasting scar

The stories behind the Carandiru massacre have been detailed in songs, books and movies. It is also present in Brazil’s debate on law, security, the penitentiary system, social conflicts and human rights.

In 2002, the Carandiru was deactivated and transformed into a park,  library and two schools. However, it is clear that the consequences of the massacre live on.

Human Rights
Diego da Silva Rodrigues

Diego is an applied economist interested in policy evaluation and quantitative methods. His main interests are around family issues, such as marriage, parenting, gender, fertility and children, being member of the International Network of Child Support Scholars (INCSS) and the Parenting Culture Studies Postgraduate Network. Diego has also publications in migration and health economics, and is currently involved with human rights and democracy activism in South America. At present, he is completing his PhD at the University of Kent, UK, and is lecturer in Economics at IESGO, Brazil.
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