SAO PAULO – Brazil is facing a new crisis in its prison system after violence over the past two days in prisons in the state of Amazonas left at least 55 people dead.
Forty inmates were found dead by asphyxiation on Monday at detention facilities in the state capital, Manaus, one day after another 15 inmates died in a gang fight.
The victims were found by staff during routine inspections.
In a statement, the Amazonas Penitentiary Administration Secretariat said that the situation was “under control” with “all of the prisoners behind bars,” adding that an investigation has been opened to shed light on the incidents.
The Brazilian federal justice ministry said it would dispatch an elite prison-supervision unit to Amazonas.
The prison complex was also the scene in 2017 of a massacre between prisoners from rival gangs that left 56 people dead, many of whom were decapitated, while around 200 prisoners escaped after 17 hours of rioting.
That incident triggered one of the worst prison crises in the history of the country, as deadly rioting spread to other states, forcing then president Michel Temer to bring the army into the prisons to quell the violence.
Prison officials and police officers have been deployed to other prisons in the state to stop the violence from spreading.
Preliminary investigations show that the deaths over the past two days “might be motivated by a dispute between prisoners who were members of the same gang involved in drug trafficking,” the Amazonas Penitentiary Administration Secretariat said.
Security agents on Monday began occupying prisons in Manaus to separate prisoners who are under threat of being murdered by other gang members.
In a statement, the governor of the state of Amazonas, Wilson Lima, said that he had spoken with Justice Minister Sergio Moro to request assistance to contain “a national problem.”
The central government has sent a security detail specialized in prison control.
Riots, killings and mass escapes are common in Brazil’s penitentiary system, which international organizations call one of the world’s worst and most violent.
The country has the world’s third largest prison population at over 700,000 people, nearly double they were built to accommodate, according to figures from the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety.
Some of the country’s most powerful criminal organizations, including the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) and Comando Vermelho, in recent years have starting expanding their drug and weapons trafficking networks through alliances with smaller gangs across South America.
After initially operating inside jails, the two groups soon began vying for control of border trafficking routes to smuggle weapons and drugs. Their expansion has led to a power struggle between the two groups, leading to frequent violent clashes between members both outside and inside prison.