Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: Prison Riot with 26 Hostages Highlights Collapse of System

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 1 1996 (IPS) - Prison riots and jailbreaks are run- of-the-mill occurrences in Brazil, largely due to overcrowding and poor conditions in the country’s penal institutions. But some make international headlines, especially when hostages are involved.

Inmates of a prison in the central-western state of Goias are holding 26 hostages, including the president of the state Court of Justice, Homero Sabino Freitas, and Security Secretary Antonio Lorenzo, demanding firearms and vehicles in which to escape.

The rioters at the Goias Agroindustrial Penitentiary Centre (CEPAIGO), 220 kilometres from Brasilia, initially took 35 hostages last Thursday, when a group of judges visited the prison to investigate prisoners’ denunciations of mistreatment.

Nine of the initial hostages were freed, but 26 were still being held on Monday.

The government of Goias has decided to prolong the negotiations, in an attempt to wait out the rebellion. That tactic has been successful in recent uprisings in other provinces, but it has also led to tragedy in some cases.

Riots in Brazilian prisons are generally in protest against overcrowding, poor conditions and mistreatment by warders.

While the total capacity of the nation’s prisons is 59,000 inmates, there are currently nearly 140,000, according to the Prison Population Census carried out last year by the Ministry of Justice.

And due to the problem of overcrowding, thousands of prisoners are held in police stations not properly equipped for such a purpose.

The result? A daily average of two or three jailbreaks or riots.

The National Council on Criminal and Penitentiary Policy, an advisory body to the Ministry of Justice, acknowledges the lamentable state of the prison system, and has suggested several solutions.

One recommendation is that those found guilty of misdemeanours be removed from the prisons, and punished by fines, community service and confiscation of property.

“The prisons should be reserved for the perpetrators of violent crimes,” said Council president Paulo Camargo.

Several years ago, in a prison near Belo Horizonte, the capital of the central-eastern state of Minas Gerais, inmates got so desperate that they began to sacrifice fellow prisoners one by one, demanding to be transferred to less crowded facilities.

And in 1992, Sao Paulo police executed 111 prisoners by firing squad, following an alleged riot.

There are 780 inmates in CEPAIGO, where the 26 hostages are being held. In a message sent from the prison, 66-year-old Judge Homero Freitas admitted that conditions in the prison are extremely difficult, while urging police to give in to the rioters’ demands.

But according to Leonardo Pareja, spokesman for the rioters, only 20 inmates have directly taken part in the uprising. Although a group of six to 10 prisoners who were not involved took advantage of the confusion, and escaped through a tunnel.

Pareja said the prisoners “are determined” to do whatever is necessary, and that if the police decide to invade the prison, “there will be a tragedy.” The hostages are being held in cells with canisters of cooking gas, which the rioters have warned they will explode in case of an invasion.

Pareja, the prisoners’ 21-year-old spokesman, shot into the limelight last September when he staged a spectacular jailbreak in northeastern Brazil.

After holding a 14-year-old girl hostage for 60 hours in a hotel, he fled in a car and hid out for 40 days, until turning himself in “to avoid deaths.”

Of middle-class origin, Pareja studied English and piano as a boy. But he began to commit armed robberies when his father’s companies went under, and his standard of living plummeted.

He speaks well, cultivates the image of an outlaw hero, and after having escaped twice from prison, accuses the police of being “stupid and ineffective.”

Pareja is serving a 16-year sentence for robbery and kidnapping, and is pending trial on additional charges.

His adversary in the negotiations is a police chief of the Civil Police of Goias, whose name would make even the strongest at heart quake: Hitler Mussolini Pacheco.

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