SAO PAULO — Despite the number of casualties, the riot and subsequent massacre in a prison in Manaus, the biggest in the Amazonas state, was no surprise to informed observers. A key exception, however, may have been Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes, who back in October had described the ongoing dispute between criminal gangs as "mere bravado."

Everything indicates that the 56 prisoners killed between Sunday and Monday at the Anisio Jobim Prison Complex are part of the chronology of war initiated in June between two drug gangs, First Capital Command ("Primeiro Comando da Capital", PCC) and Red Command ("Comando Vermelho", CV), over the control of the border between the state of Mato Grosso do Sul and Paraguay — the main entry point for drugs into Brazil.

On June 15, drug trafficker Jorge Rafaat Toumani was killed in the border city of Pedro Juan Caballero in a Hollywood-like shootout that lasted four hours and involved about 70 criminals. The attack was attributed to the PCC.

From mid-October, the war descended into score-settlings in penitentiaries of northern Brazil, a consequence of alliances between the PCC and the CV with regional criminal organizations.

The first massacre took place in Boa Vista, in the state of Roraima, with 10 dead. It was followed by similar events in Porto Velho, in the Rondônia state, with eight killed and in Rio Branco, the capital of the state of Acre, where four assassinations took place inside the prison and five in the city's streets in the span of 24 hours. In all those cases, investigations have pointed to a gang war as the root cause.

The incapacity of these overpopulated prison complexes to manage their inmates is, also, nothing new. Interviewed just after the latest slaughter, Emylson da Silva, public security chief in the neighboring state of Acre, acknowledged that in such conditions there's often no way to avoid the violence. "There are 10 people inside one cell. If anybody in there decides they're going to execute somebody, it's very difficult to avoid it," he admitted.

Hard time

The situation is even worse in Manaus, the most violent capital city of northern Brazil. The Anisio Jobim Prison Complex's official capacity stands at 454 prisoners, yet 1,244 were detained there in December. Like other public security officials in northern states, Sérgio Fontes of the Amazonas state blames the gang war first, but also the lack of space in prisons.

Smoke rising from the Anisio Jobim Prison Complex in Manaus on Jan. 2 — Photo: A Critica/Xinhua/ZUMA

The penitentiaries in Manaus are the cradle of Northern Family ("Família do Norte", FDN), the main criminal organization in northern Brazil and enemy of the PCC. It's also held responsible for this latest slaughter as well as for dozens of other murders in the streets of Manaus over the past few years.

According to the civil police of the Amazonas state, the FDN started to build itself in 2007 in response to the entrance of the São Paulo-based PCC in the state, as the latter sought to control the transport of cocaine from Colombia via the Rio Negro to Manaus where it was sold. The first great wave of killings related to that dispute occurred between 2011 and 2012. FDN leaders have been detained at the Anisio Jobim Prison Complex, from where they organize their traffic. José Roberto Fernande Barbosa, believed to be the FDN's number one leader, is currently held at the federal penitentiary of Campo Grande, in Mato Grosso do Sul.

The city of Manaus is currently undergoing the most violent moment in its history. With a homicide rate of 48 per 100,000 inhabitants (in 2015), it ranks 23rd in the world, according to the Mexican NGO Justicia Y Paz. And the figures have been growing exponentially. Concentrated mostly in the state's capital city of 2 million inhabitants, the number of violent deaths in Amazonas rose 134.4% between 2004 and 2014.

So far, the figures and diagnoses have fallen on the deaf ears of Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes. Commenting on the deaths in northern prisons on Oct. 18, he denied the existence of an ongoing conflict between rival gangs. "Sometimes, there are mere bravados between people who rebel. Beyond that, there's nothing that indicates a coordination over various states," he said at the time.

With state governments unable to respond, the massacre at the Anisio Jobim Prison Complex is unlikely to be the final chapter of this war. That lesson has been learned the hard way.

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