Sat, Jan 19, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Brazil bombings reveal growing power of gangs

A wave of bomb and fire attacks in the state of Ceara exposes how poverty, a lack of policies for young people and a creaking prison system add up to a perfect storm

By Jo Griffin  /  The Guardian

Antonio Carlos da Silva was returning home to the Lagoa Redonda District of Fortaleza when two armed men drove past in a black car, ordering businesses to shut and residents to go inside and turn off the lights.

Da Silva spent the next day indoors with no drinking water as a wave of unrest engulfed the northeastern Brazilian city.

“There’s a climate of panic and people are terrified to go out. It’s like you’re a prisoner in your home and even then not safe,” Da Silva said. “These attacks are worse than in the past; they’re attacking shopping centers, bridges. No one knows how it will end.”

Now in its third week, the wave of bomb and fire attacks on bridges, banks and other infrastructure across Ceara State shows no sign of letting up, with two bridges blown up and a school bus set on fire during at least eight attacks on Sunday.

It is seen not just as a direct challenge to new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, but also as stark evidence that the nation urgently needs penal reform and alternatives to the tough-on-crime policies he is promising.

“This crisis was entirely predictable. This is the fourth year we’ve had such attacks. We were sitting on a barrel of gunpowder and it just needed someone to light the fuse,” Socialism and Liberty Party lawmaker Renato Roseno said.

Poverty, “medieval prisons,” the war on drugs and non-existent policies for marginalized young people make the state “fertile recruiting ground” for criminal gangs, he added.

This time the fuse was lit by an announcement on Jan. 1 by Ceara’s new secretary of penitentiary administration, Luis Mauro Albuquerque, that he did not “recognize” different criminal factions in the prison system and would end the practice of dividing them based on gang allegiances, as part of new hardline measures.

The ensuing backlash has seen more than 180 attacks on public property as two of Brazil’s largest gangs, the First Capital Command and Red Command, operate a pact against the “common enemy” — the state. Reports said that local rivals the Guardians of the State and Family of the North, from Amazonas, have joined in — potentially setting up a dangerous wider alliance against authorities. Fortaleza, the state capital, has seen the worst unrest.


O Povo news site reported that gangs were paying young people in poorer areas to commit crimes, with 1,000 reais (US$267) to set fire to a bus and 5,000 reais for “a fire of great proportions.” Others are settling personal drug debts with acts of violence.

Four hundred national guards have been sent to Fortaleza to restore order, the graduation of military police recruits has been speeded up and prisoners suspected of leading the unrest have been transferred out of the state. Police have taken more than 400 mobile phones from prisoners across Ceara, and there have been 358 arrests.

However, critics said that none of this would solve the structural crisis in Ceara’s overcrowded prisons, where the insistence on criminalization and mass incarceration have left about 29,000 inmates occupying spaces for about 11,000 people.

Overcrowding makes it harder to uphold even basic rights for inmates, handing control to gangs. These gangs then feed a crime epidemic among young people who lack alternatives.

“We haven’t changed the prison policy for 30 years and we just repeat the same mistakes,” said Roseno, who heads a campaign to stop murders of adolescents. “The government needs a policy of penal reform, but it doesn’t have one. A prison should aim to [reintegrate] the criminal into society, but only 5 percent of inmates are studying and only 7 percent are working — they need skills and education.”

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