RIO DE JANEIRO — A fight between rival gangs in a prison in northern Brazil left at least 52 inmates dead, including at least 16 who were decapitated, according to prison officials.
The clash in Pará State was the latest deadly outbreak of violence in Brazil’s overcrowded and riot-prone prisons, which have seen an increase in population in recent years without investment to match.
Powerful drug kingpins often continue to run their criminal organizations from behind bars in the understaffed detention facilities. And while prison officials often segregate rival gangs, feuds frequently erupt into violence. A similar fight at a prison in neighboring Amazonas State in May resulted in the death of 55 inmates.
Officials said inmates at the Regional Recovery Center in Altamira, a city in southeast Pará, held two prison guards hostage during an altercation that began early Monday morning.
A fire broke out during the fight. When officials regained control of the prison, they found that at least 16 inmates had been decapitated and 36 had died from smoke inhalation.
“Today’s massacre in Altamira is another grim reminder that the federal and state governments have lost control of Brazil’s prison system,” said Robert Muggah, the research director at Igarapé Institute, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro that studies public safety. “Prison violence is the predictable result of a longstanding policy of mass incarceration.”
The deaths resulted from a clash between rival drug gangs that have vied for control of the prison, correction officials in Pará said in a statement. Members of one of the groups, Comando Classe A, set fire to cells that were occupied by members of Comando Vermelho, or Red Command.
“The prisoners managed to hold a couple of guards hostage, but they were set free because this was about score-settling between two factions,” Jarbas Vasconcelos, the superintendent of the Pará prison system, said in the statement.
Officials said they found rudimentary knives in the area after the fire was extinguished.
An inspection of the prison in Altamira conducted earlier this month by the National Justice Council, a government agency that oversees prison facilities, found that the detention center in Altamira was in “terrible” shape. In a public report, the agency found that the prison was holding 343 inmates even though it had the capacity to house only 163.
In a statement, the prison system disputed that the facility was overcrowded.
Holding more than 811,000 prisoners, Brazil has the world’s third-largest inmate population, surpassed only by the United States and China.
Despite longstanding problems in the prison system, there is little political will in Brazil for criminal justice reforms that would reduce the prison population and prioritize rehabilitation over punishment.
Justice Minister Sérgio Moro said the federal government has offered to transfer the leaders of factions involved in the clash to federal prisons to “isolate those responsible for the barbarity.” He said they ought to “remain held forever in federal prisons.”
President Jair Bolsonaro and federal lawmakers are seeking to toughen sentences for drug crimes, which is likely to make prison overcrowding even worse.
“Unfortunately, most Brazilians will shrug off this latest outbreak of violence, numb as they are to the ritual of bloodletting in the country’s prisons,” said Mr. Muggah, of the Igarapé Institute.
In fact, some Brazilians celebrated the deaths.
“The truth is no one is going to miss them,” Gilson Cardoso Fahur, a federal lawmaker and former police officer, said in a video he posted on Twitter. “They won’t commit crimes again.”