An inmate displays a makeshift knife moments after police left the Alcacuz prison on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017. Image: Felipe Dana/AP
In the first three weeks of 2017, over 100 inmates were butchered in Brazilian jails, several of them decapitated, charred or dismembered in a series of riots that have threatened to destabilize the country’s penal system. Brazil’s two largest drug trafficking gangs are warring for territorial control in a fight playing out inside the country’s overcrowded prisons.
But unlike narco wars of the past, everyday Brazilians now have a window to watch these gruesome murders up close on their cell phones. Within hours of the bloodiest slaughter yet, a 17-hour rebellion in an Amazonian jail that killed 60 people, footage of the decapitated bodies circulated on social media. DVDs of the massacre, available on the streets for $1 a pop, sold out nationwide.
Smuggled cell phones have long been a tool for inmates to control gang activities inside prison walls. And having proliferated inside Brazil's prison system they're allowing a critical mass of inmates the means to orchestrate mass attacks on rival gangs and control drug trafficking from behind bars.
But the rise of social media has given gangs a direct line of communication to their rivals, affiliates in other states, and the communities they control. Photos of blood pooling in prison corridors and stacks of corpses piled high in the aftermath of recent riots sent an incontestable message of power to their audience.
“We are seeing the emergence of both digital and physical conflicts between public authorities and gangs,” said Robert Muggah, Research Director at the Igarapé Institute, a Rio de Janeiro-based think tank that deals with incarceration and drug policy. “The communication of violence has become as important as the violence itself.”
"We are seeing the emergence of both digital and physical conflicts."
In the aftermath of the Amazonian prison revolt, police found 66 smuggled cell phones inside the complex. Aware of the amplifying power of social media and the penal system’s poor record of halting phone trafficking, the Brazilian government has increasingly relied on phone jammers, which disrupt cell phone signals to block internet access, as a way to limit inmates’ access to the web.
Jammers are currently installed in 45 percent of prisons around the country, according to the Justice Department. Brazil’s most populous state, São Paulo, announced this month that it plans on doubling the number of blockers in its prisons, according to the state’s penitentiary system.
But Brazil’s overcrowded prison system, combined with guards’ lack of authority over inmates, limits the viability and effectiveness of cell phone jamming tech.
Brazil has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the world, with over 600,000 inmates. That's 60 percent more bodies than its national prison system was built to hold, according to a Human Rights Watch Report issued this month. Harsher drug policies have raised the number of inmates by 80 percent in the last ten years—and prison guards are unable to keep up.
The country needs 120,000 more penitentiary workers than it currently employs to handle its ballooning prison population, according to the Ministry of Justice. In practice, that means the handful of guards responsible for watching over thousands of prisoners hand free reign over the jail to a select group of inmates in exchange for order.
Known as the key holders, these prisoners “rent” inmates sleeping space within the crowded cells for $800 a month. Crack cocaine use within the prisons, facilitated by corrupt guards, is rampant, and inmates who fail to pay their drug debts have their eyes burned out, appendages mutilated, or are even killed by traffickers, according to their family members, according to Human Rights Watch.
Relatives of inmates ask for information after a riot left 60 people killed in the Anisio Jobim Penitentiary Complex. Image: Marcio Silva/Getty
Critics say these issues require systemic solutions that go beyond jammers.
“Cell phone jammers are being installed, but there needs to be broader reform,” said César Muñoz, a Human Rights Watch prison researcher in Brazil. “Authorities simply can’t control what happens inside prisons.”
Munoz witnessed this problem firsthand when he visited a northern Brazil prison that employed four guards per shift to watch over 2,300 inmates. Vastly outnumbered, the guards kept watch over the prison entrance, but were too afraid to go inside, Muñoz said.
Making matters worse, guards are paid a spare middle income salary of $12,000 a year, according to the Ministry of Justice, and many are not adequately trained to deal with the gangs operating under their watch.
“The prison system is a ticking time bomb,” said Julimara Carvalho, a researcher who worked at the Amazonian prison where the revolts first broke out. “The guards are easily manipulated by prisoners. They don’t know how to deal with threats or blackmail.”
Encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp have replaced the inmates’ need for coded communication.
Guards often become hostages to their prisoners’ demands and are unable to implement necessary reforms, like installing cell phone jammers. Last July, inmates in the northern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Norte ordered gang members to torch busses and fire at police stations and government buildings in protest of plans for the installation of jammers in several jails. The attacks brought the region to a halt for a week until the military was able to reinstate order. By December, only three of the state’s 33 prisons had a cell phone jammer installed.
Infiltrating communication between inmates has also become tougher. Gangs used to rely on social media to communicate directives to faction members outside prison walls, by posting coded pictures or songs on YouTube that relayed specific instructions. But encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp, which are much harder for authorities to intercept, have replaced the inmates’ need for coded communication, according to military police.
“WhatsApp commands the crime that happens inside and outside of prisons,” said Valderize Campos, 61, Coordinator of Afadequipe, a nonprofit in the northeastern city of Recife that works with the government to denounce wrongdoing within prisons.
End-to-end encryption, a method of encrypting data where only the communicating users can read exchanged messages, has increased tension between law enforcement and tech companies committed to privacy. Last March, a Brazilian judge jailed a Facebook executive over the company’s refusal to hand over access to WhatsApp messages as part of a drug trafficking investigation. The government has placed periodic bans on WhatsApp when Facebook, which acquired the widely-used messaging service for $19 million in 2014, refused to comply with requests for information on encrypted messages.
The rise of social media has also made it easier for gangs to forge alliances across state lines. In the aftermath of the prison riots, gang affiliates incarcerated around Brazil received video and audio messages incentivizing them to replicate riots in their own states to see which region could tally the highest number of deaths. Motherboard had access to these audio messages, which Afadequipe confirmed were speeding across the country.
Afadequipe has tried to channel prisoners’ social media use to increase transparency. Inmates can now use WhastApp anonymously report wrongdoing and plans for revolts to the organization from the inside, which helps liaise with state governments to quell unrest and fight corruption.
Social media also plays an important role in maintaining inmates’ relationships with their families and loved ones—connections that can be vital for prisoners navigating the war-like conditions of Brazilian jails.
When the Amazonian prison riot erupted earlier this month, 27-year-old Jander de Andrade Maciel used a smuggled phone to send one last message to his family. According to Estado de Sao Paulo, a Brazilian newspaper, Andrade Maciel asked his brother Janderlan to take care of their mother. Moments later, he was killed.
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