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Brazil's crowded prisons feed gangs, violence

Tue, February 28, 2017   /   11:04 am
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    In this Jan. 20, 2017 file photo, inmates walk amid tension as confrontation between rival gangs continue in the Alcacuz prison in Nizea Floresta, near Natal, Brazil. The violence and the grisly killings go beyond the typical problems in Brazil's prisons and could signal the beginning of a nationwide gang war for control of the system, said Benjamin Lessing, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who studies criminal conflict in Latin America. At Alcacuz, the First Capital Command gang is fighting the Crime Syndicate for control. AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File

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    In this Jan. 21, 2017 file photo, Special Operations Battalion Police officers enter the Alcacuz prison amid tension between rival gangs in Nisia Floresta, near Natal, Brazil. Brazil incarcerates more than 620,000 people in a system that has space for a little over 370,000, according to a 2014 Ministry of Justice report. Forty percent of detainees are merely awaiting trial. AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File

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    In this Feb. 6, 2017 photo, detainees crowd a holding cell at a police station near Manaus, Brazil. The beginning of the chain that feeds Brazilian gangs are improvised cells at police stations, where 10 percent of Brazil's more than 600,000 inmates await trial. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 6, 2017 photo, detainees rest in hammocks inside an overcrowded cell at a police station near Manaus, Brazil. All 24 inmates at the station said they were linked to the Family of the North gang, but guards said that could be just a defensive move after a slaughter at the city's main jail, Complexo Penitenciario Anisio Jobim. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 6, 2017 photo, detainees sit inside an overcrowded cell at a police station near Manaus, Brazil. The walls are filled with infiltrations of moisture, the poor construction of the roof let almost no light shine inside and inmates put hammocks one on the top of the other, while one prisoner slept in the open bathroom. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 6, 2017 photo, an inmate reaches for a plate of food during lunchtime inside an overcrowded cell at a police station near Manaus, Brazil. The business strategy of Brazilian crime gangs is to dominate overcrowded prisons, then control the streets. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 6, 2017 photo, a detainee prays inside an overcrowded cell at a police station near Manaus, Brazil. All 24 detainees being held in this space made for eight said they hoped to avoid being transferred to a bigger prison under gang rule. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 6, 2017 photo, a detainee holds a Bible inside an overcrowded cell at a police station near Manaus, Brazil. A recent study by think-tank Fundacao Getulio Vargas estimates that 40 percent of Brazilian prisoners have not been convicted. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 6, 2017 photo, female detainee Regiane stands locked in a corridor between two holding cells overcrowded with men at a police station near Manaus, Brazil. The station had two cells where 24 people were being housed despite an official capacity of for eight. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 6, 2017 photo, female prisoner Regiane sits on her bed inside a corridor between two cells crowded with men at a police station near Manaus, Brazil. The message on the wall reads in Portuguese: "The last option is to put a bullet in the police. Merry Christmas." AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 2, 2017 photo, an inmate sits inside a cell separated from the main prison population, at the Monte Cristo agricultural penitentiary in Boa Vista, Brazil. Many inmates shouted that they need medical attention. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 2, 2017 photo, guards stand outside prison cells at the Monte Cristo agricultural penitentiary in Boa Vista, Brazil. Guards, administrative prison staff and families of inmates of this prison said gang leaders ordered newcomers to join killing sprees in January and dismember and behead the dead. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 2, 2017 photo, an inmate sits facing the wall at the end of a corridor between cells at the Monte Cristo agricultural penitentiary in Boa Vista, Brazil. Some prisoners serving time for lesser crimes were forced to participate in gang-driven slaughters that left at least 130 inmates dead in January at this jail, and one other. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 4, 2017 photo, people mourn the body of a murdered family member in Manaus, Brazil. According to Claudio Lamachia, the head of Brazil's bar association, Brazil's prisons are universities of crime, and from the inside, leaders give orders to commit crimes on the outside, including assasination. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 5, 2017 photo, residents watch police work at a crime scene where a man was murdered in Manaus, Brazil. The increasingly violent city is a thoroughfare for drug trafficking across South America, where authorities suspect most murders are gang related. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 5, 2017 photo, a gloved morgue worker rests at a home where the body of a woman lies on the kitchen floor after she was shot to death under unclear circumstances in Manaus, Brazil. The increasingly violent city is a thoroughfare for drug trafficking across South America, where authorities suspect most murders are gang related. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 5, 2017 photo, police inspect a home where a murder victim lies on the floor in Manaus, Brazil. The increasingly violent city is a thoroughfare for drug trafficking across South America, where authorities suspect most murders are gang related. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 5, 2017 photo, police inspect a murder victim on the floor of a home in Manaus, Brazil. The increasingly violent city is a thoroughfare for drug trafficking across South America, where authorities suspect most murders are gang related. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 5, 2017 photo, residents watch police inspect a home where a woman was shot to death in Manaus, Brazil. "Citizens are the ones who are truly jailed these days," said Claudio Lamachia, head of Brazil's bar association. "Members of the crime gangs are dictating the rules and stopping people from leaving their homes." AP Photo/Felipe Dana

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    In this Feb. 2, 2017 photo, Claudio Lamachia, head of Brazil's Bar Association, right, stands in a cell where several inmates were killed at the Anisio Jobim penitentiary complex, known by its Portuguese acronym of Compaj, in Manaus, Brazil. "Our prisons are universities of crime and we are financing drug gangs inside the prisons by overcrowding them," he said. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

First, dominate overcrowded prisons. Then, control the streets and international drug routes.

That is the business strategy of Brazilian crime gangs. Inside the prisons, ruthless gang leaders don't just recruit dangerous inmates but target the more than 250,000 prisoners who are in for lesser crimes like theft and marijuana possession. Some such prisoners were forced to participate in gang-driven slaughters that nationwide left at least 130 inmates dead in January.

"Our prisons are universities of crime and we are financing drug gangs inside the prisons by overcrowding them," Claudio Lamachia, the head of Brazil's bar association, said after visiting some of the most-violent prisons in Latin America's most-populous nation. "And from inside (leaders) give orders to outside."

Earlier this month, The Associated Press gained exclusive access to two prisons in the northern Amazon region where massacres kicked off a wave of violence in several penitentiaries.

The first was the Complexo Penitenciario Anisio Jobim in Manaus, where 57 inmates were murdered by the Family of the North gang on Jan. 1. The second was the Monte Cristo Agricultural Penitentiary, in the far northern city of Boa Vista, where at least 33 inmates were killed days later.

In both places, the AP witnessed extreme overcrowding and squalid conditions that form the backdrop of gang recruiting. Guards, administrative prison staff and families of inmates of both prisons said gang leaders ordered newcomers to join killing sprees and dismember and behead the dead.

At the Manaus penitentiary, the smell of bleach still dominated weeks after prisoners trashed an entire wing of the prison while killing adversaries of the Sao Paulo-based First Command and then chopping up their bodies.

In Manaus, a gritty and increasingly violent city of 2 million that is the jumping off point to the Amazon jungle and a thoroughfare for drug trafficking across South America, the AP also witnessed the aftermath from several murders that authorities said they suspected were gang related.

"Citizens are the ones who are truly jailed these days," said Lamachia. "Members of the crime gangs are dictating the rules and stopping people from leaving their homes."

At the Boa Vista penitentiary, in which First Command attacked their adversaries, hundreds of flies landed on plastic bags of food sent by family to prisoners. Many inmates shouted that they need medical attention.

"No one deserves to be here," a Venezuelan inmate at Boa Vista's penitentiary said through a small hole on the cell door. "Not the good people, not the bad, not anyone."

The beginning of the chain that feeds Brazilian gangs are improvised cells at police stations, where 10 percent of Brazil's more than 600,000 inmates await trial. The AP gained access to one such jail outside of Manaus.

The station had two cells where 24 people were being housed despite an official capacity of for eight. One female prisoner was housed in the corridor between cells.

All 24 inmates in the police station said they were linked to the Family of the North gang, but guards said that could be just a defensive move after the Manaus slaughter.

None of the 24 had been convicted. A recent study by think-tank Fundacao Getulio Vargas estimated that 40 percent of Brazilian prisoners have not been convicted.

Despite the horrible conditions, all hoped to avoid being transferred to a bigger prison under gang rule.

"We are afraid. We could die there, too," said 23-year-old Ronaldo, who said he was arrested for stealing an air conditioning unit and declined to give his last name. "I want to re-enter society, not to dig deeper into crime."

AP/ MAURICIO SAVARESE