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80 Prisoners Still At Large In Brazil After Jail Riot


Nine people are dead and 14 injured after a riot at a prison in Brazil. They were all inmates in one of the most troubled penal systems in the world. NPR's Philip Reeves says there are concerns that the latest killings could lead to more.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The New Year has begun here with a rerun of history. Exactly one year after a wave of massacres began inside Brazil's prisons, violence among inmates has erupted again. Investigators are trying to identify the charred - and in two cases beheaded - bodies of a group of prisoners killed during a riot yesterday. It happened inside a big semi-open prison in Brazil's central state of Goias, a place called the Aparecida de Goiania Penitentiary.

NEWTON CASTILHO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Newton Castilho, spokesman for the state penal system, says some prisoners from one wing invaded three other wings. They set fires and attacked inmates.

CASTILHO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Castilho blames turf wars between rival drug gangs. During the confusion, more than 240 prisoners escaped by climbing fences and breaking down a wall. More than half were soon captured. Officials say a big search is going on on the ground and from a chopper for the other prisoners on the run. As news of the violence spread, families of inmates gathered outside the prison, crying out for information. For Brazilians, such scenes are a reminder of the long-running crisis within their penal system.

In the first weeks of last year, some 130 inmates died during a wave of bloodletting in prisons in the north of the country. This was set off by a feud between drug gangs battling over control of highly lucrative cocaine routes. Brazil's prisons are dominated and sometimes even controlled by these factions, who have access to weapons and phones. Yet violence behind bars isn't only about drugs.

GEORGE DANTAS: There is a basic problem in the Brazilian prison system regarding space.

REEVES: George Dantas is a specialist in public security issues in Brazil.

DANTAS: We are well beyond any rational limit, and a hundred percent of overcrowding is commonplace.

REEVES: Officials say the prison block in which yesterday's trouble started was badly overcrowded. The worry now is that the violence will spread to other prisons just as it did one year ago. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BUDOS BAND'S "T.I.B.W.F.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.