Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Another prison riot in Brazil -- 26 dead (Jan. 17, 2017)

Another prison riot in Brazil, this time in the Rio Grande do Norte province, claimed 26 lives this weekend. This pushes the total death toll to over a 134 so far this year, reports Folha de S. Paulo. A spate of violence that has even jaded Brazilians horrified, according to the New York Times.

As in previous riots, many of the bodies were extensively mutilated, including decapitation. The Associated Press points to a pattern "that security forces have been unable to get ahead of. It starts with an hours-long riot inside a penitentiary, then military police are sent in to assist severely outnumbered guards and distraught families wait outside while inmates post on social media photos they take of chopped up body parts."

Experts pin the spate of riots to a break between the country's main prison gangs -- the São Paulo-based First Capital Command (PCC) and the Rio de Janeiro-based Red Command (CV), which is associated with the Northern Family. But this weekend's fighting was between the PCC and the Sindicato do Crime, its local rival inside the prison, reports the Wall Street Journal. The PCC is seeking to expand dominance in the country's north in order to control lucrative cocaine trafficking routes.

But the riots also draw attention to the crushing overcrowding in the country's penitentiary system. The prison has a capacity of 620 inmates, but held nearly double that amount at the time of the riots. Brazil had 622,000 prisoners in 2014, compared to 233,000 in 2000 -- crammed into facilities built to deal with half that number. Extreme overcrowding exacerbates terrible prison conditions, such as infestations of rats and poisonous centipedes. These issues have fueled the growth of the gangs in the first place, and and are the overarching reason for the extreme violence, Julita Lemgruber, coordinator of the Centro de Estudos de Segurança e Cidadania told El País.

And InSight Crime notes that a prison guard speaking on the condition of anonymity told O Globo that the number of guards at Alcaçuz prison had been reduced from 21 to 7 in recent years.

The killings -- some of which occurred at a prison where services are privately run -- revive an older debate around privatized prisons, argues Gil Alessi in El País

Another concern is that the prison violence could spill over to the streets of Brazil's cities, according to another piece in El País. In fact, this weekend several shootouts occurred in the nearby city of Natal on the afternoon of the prison attack, possibly related.

"This recent incident serves as a reminder of the lack of control authorities exert over Brazil's prison system, and how this dynamic can contribute to violence on the street," according to InSight.

So far measures aimed at stopping the riots, including shuffling thousands of inmates among prisons, dispatching National Guard forces to critical areas and plans to build new prisons, have not been effective, notes the AP. 

Though the Minister of Justice has promised a national security plan, and will meet with provincial security secretariats this week, in which local officials responsible for penitentiaries are expected to ask for federal assistance. But El País criticizes the exclusion of prominent names in the civil society sector, including Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança, Instituto Sou da Paz, Centro de Estudos de Segurança e Cidadania, Open Society and Instituto Igarapé.

"Stopping the bloodshed begins with the federal and state governments calling this what it is: a public emergency," Robert Muggah, research director for the Igarape Institute, told the AP.

News Briefs
  • Hundreds -- potentially thousands -- of asylum seekers have been blocked from reaching U.S. asylum officials in recent months, according to accounts from migrants and advocates, reports the Washington Post. Several organizations filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, protesting the "systemic denial of entry to asylum seekers." There are reports of migrants being referred to Mexican authorities in order to secure appointments with US. asylum officials, and cases where seekers are told they need visas or are otherwise illegally blocked from meeting with an asylum official.
  • And the increasingly transited and dangerous routes migrants take through Central America and Mexico on their way to the U.S. are increasingly being transited by African migrants seeking to escape poverty, war and persecution, reports Reuters.
  • One of El Salvador's main street-gangs, Mara Salvatrucha, requested a dialogue process with the government last week, offering the group's eventual dissolution as a potential agenda item, reported El Faro last week. MS-13's proposal aims at a broad dialogue process, including the full spectrum of political parties, human rights representatives and leaders of all three main gangs operating in the country. The potential dissolution of the gang is a key difference from the failed 2012 truce, explain Carlos Martínez and Roberto Valencia. The government rejected the proposal, saying it amounted to negotiations with criminals. However, the Catholic Church urged both sides to generate trust in order to move forward, reported El Faro yesterday. Last week El Salvador had an anomalous homicide-free day, but authorities can't ascribe it to any reason in particular -- there was an average of 10 homicides per day in the days leading up to last Wednesday, notes the New York Times. (See Friday's briefs.)
  • The sudden end to the U.S. preferential immigration policy for Cubans has struck a blow at a central tenet of Cuban perceptions of the hegemon to the north, and potentially left thousands stranded mid-journey to the border. Those would-be migrants are now on exactly the same footing as all other hopeful immigrants, and must decide whether to continue the journey and enter the U.S. illegally, reports the New York Times.
  • In one fell swoop, everything changed, yet the reasons pushing Cubans to leave remain the same, writes Elaine Díaz Rodríguez in a New York Times Español op-ed. More is needed to bring about meaningful change in Cuba, she notes, the would be migrant will not overnight become an activist. (See Friday's post.) 
  • Human smugglers might get a short-term boost out of the change -- as Cubans en route seek to complete the journey -- but in the long term will be undermined as far more are dissuaded from making the journey, according to InSight Crime.
  • The leader of Cuba's negotiating team with the U.S., Josefina Vidal, told the Guardian (presumably aimed at Trump) that "aggression, pressure, conditions, impositions do not work with Cuba. This is not the way to attempt to have even a minimally civilized relationship with Cuba."
  • Colombia's ombudsman drew attention to a wave of killings targeting social leaders in the country, apparently aimed at undermining the peace process with the FARC. Members of the left-wing Marcha Patriotica, a political movement bringing together some 2,000 social organizations, have suffered dozens of targeted attacks, and more than 120 have been killed since 2012, reports TeleSur.
  • Venezuelan banks finally began distributing larger banknotes, after the chaos-causing announcement last month that the 100 bolivar bill would be phased out. The bills, which range from 500 bolivares to 20,000 (worth about $5.60 on the black market), will, literally, lighten the load for hyper-inflation afflicted Venezuelans who must carry bags of cash for simple transactions, reports the New York Times. The 100 bolivar note will remain in circulation for another month.
  • On Sunday President Nicolás Maduro delivered his annual presidential address to the Supreme Court, rather than the National Assembly, which the court has deemed "in contempt," reports AFP, the latest iteration of an increasingly tense battle between the government and the political opposition.
  • On the AULA blog, Carlos Malamud reviews the upcoming year of Latin American elections: Ecuador, Honduras and Chile will choose new (or the same) presidents, while state governor elections in Mexico will be a bellwether for that country's presidential the following year. And mid-term elections in Argentina will give a measure of how citizens feel about Macri's government so far. And elections to Bolivia's courts could test citizen approval for a potential constitutional reform by President Evo Morales.
  • Morales announced an upcoming cabinet shakeup as he starts his twelfth year as president, reports EFE.
  • While China is making inroads in Latin America -- Taiwan is seeking to strengthen its relationship with Central American countries, among the few in the world to diplomatically recognize the country considered a breakaway province by China, reports the New York Times. President Tsai Ing-wen attended the inauguration of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega last week, as well as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
  • Former Haitian-coup leader and senator-elect, Guy Phillipe, pleaded not guilty to decade-old U.S. drug trafficking charges, reports the Associated Press. (See last Friday's briefs, among others.)
  • Mexican authorities say they detained a member of the Honduran military wanted in connexion to environmental activist Berta Cáceres' murder last year, reports the Associated Press.
  • But Honduran authorities have yet to contact the only witness of the killing in relation to identifying the killers, said Mexican Gustavo Castro in a press conference, reports EFE.
  • A deadly shooting outside at a Playa del Carmen nightclub has residents concerned that the resort town is falling prey to the drug cartel violence afflicting the rest of Mexico, reports the Associated Press. Five people were killed by an armed man refused entry to the venue hosting an international electronic music festival, reports the New York Times. The shooter was aiming at a specific individual, according to the attorney general of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, reports EFE.
  • Ten people found dead around Guerrero in separate incidents yesterday are related to drug gang rivalries, reports Reuters.
  • On the issue of gang violence -- InSight Crime reviews an interesting book focused on blood sacrifice rituals carried out by illicit groups around the world. The review focuses on an essay by Robert Bunker, which analyzes Mexican cases. "It becomes clear over the course of the book that the cases of cartels' brutality are more widespread than is often appreciated; the oft-cited tally of total gangland deaths in Mexico since 2006, currently above 100,000, has become shorthand for a destructive pattern, but it fails to convey the acts of wanton cruelty and suffering that populate this narrative. The focus on blood sacrifice fills that void."
  • In Argentina social movements protested yesterday marking the one year incarceration of social activist Milagro Sala, reports La Nación.
  • Countries tempted to hand out "goodies" to their voters, like fiscal stimulus and trade tariffs to protect domestic workers, should view Brazil as a cautionary tale that shows how such approaches actually hamper development, according to the Wall Street Journal

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