Another prison riot claims 33 lives in Brazil. Can officials stop the violence?

The violence appeared to be part of an ongoing dispute between two gangs. It has reached crisis proportions.

Riot police officers check inmates after clashing between rival criminal factions at a prison in Boa Vista, Brazil, October 17, 2016.

At least 33 inmates were killed in a prison riot in Brazil on Friday, officials said, possibly in retaliation after members of a powerful drug gang were targeted in the worst prison massacre in decades that left 56 people dead earlier this week.

State officials said the riot in Monte Cristo, Roraima state's largest penitentiary, was brought under control by elite police forces. Violence between rival drug gangs in the prison had ended with 10 dead in October.

At least 93 prisoners have been killed in three separate prison riots this week in Brazil, sparking fears that months of violence between drug gangs who control many of the country's prisons was spiraling out of control. 

It's also becoming a flashpoint for the government of President Michel Temer, whose administration is already struggling with an economic crisis and mounting corruption allegations. Authorities of the state of Roraima, on the border with Venezuela, said they requested help from Brazil's federal government more than once to deal with its prison crisis, but no support was sent. 

"This is a national crisis," Uziel Castro, security secretary of the state where the latest massacre happened, told the Associated Press. 

It wasn't immediately clear whether there was a connection to the gruesome rioting earlier this week in the neighboring state of Amazonas, which officials blamed on a gang war between the First Command and Family of the North, which fight over control of prisons and drug routes in northern Brazil along the borders of Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru and the Guianas. 

As The Christian Science Monitor wrote earlier this week, the incidents shine a light on a long-term expansion of incarceration that rivals that of the United States:

Brazil’s prisons house more than 600,000 people – about 61 percent more than its facilities can hold, according to Human Rights Watch – making it harder for authorities to maintain control. Recent austerity measures have further undercut prison authorities’ efforts.

“Every year 500 inmates die in Brazilian prisons,” former security secretary Jose Vicente da Silva told the Associated Press. “With the current economic crisis and the budget cuts, the gangs get even bolder."

...[I]n the past decade and a half, the incarceration rate has grown 10 times faster than its population growth, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, mostly due to arrests for drug possession and a pre-trial system that eschews electronic monitoring, bail, and other alternatives to detention.

A police statement said officers, including a heavily armed military-like riot squad, had been deployed to the prison.

Just as details about the latest disturbance were emerging, Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes announced measures to curb the violence.

Mr. Moraes told the AP federal police would be more integrated in state capitals and that special task forces would be created to more quickly process criminal charges, a measure aimed at reducing overcrowding. Moraes offered no deadlines for the initiatives but said they would "be realistic" given the recession in Latin America's largest economy.

"The situation isn't out of control," said Mr. Moraes. "It's (just) another difficult situation."

The rioting Sunday and Monday in Amazonas included the country's worst prison massacre since 1992. A total of 184 inmates escaped from Amazonas prisons in the disturbances. As of Thursday afternoon, only 65 had been recaptured.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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