RIO DE JANEIRO: At least 52 inmates were killed in a prison riot in northern Brazil on Monday (Jul 29) as rival gang factions fought each other, an official said.
Sixteen of the dead were decapitated in the second major eruption of violence to rock the country's severely overpopulated and deadly prison system in as many months.
Fighting broke out in the Altamira Regional Recovery Centre at around 7am (6pm Singapore time), an official from the Para state government's penitentiary department told AFP.
Two guards were taken hostage during the hours-long clashes, which were brought under control at around midday. They were eventually freed.
Brazilian TV stations showed footage of thick black smoke rising from the prison compound and people sitting on the roof of a building.
Other images showed flames inside a building that almost reached the ceiling and people, apparently prisoners, sitting on the ground outside.
"It is likely that many detainees died from asphyxiation (from smoke)," the government official said, adding that the death toll could rise.
No firearms were found at the scene, but improvised knives appear to have been used in the turf war, according to a statement issued by the penitentiary department.
Some of the bodies have not yet been recovered due to the heat inside some of the prison structures.
The Ministry of Justice and Public Security said ringleaders of the violence would be transferred to federal jails, which are more secure.
Some 311 prisoners were being held at the jail, which the department said was not overcrowded. It reportedly has a capacity for 200 inmates.
An outbreak of violence in the same prison in September 2018 left at least seven inmates dead, local media reported previously. Guards had apparently foiled an attempted prison escape.
In May this year, at least 55 prisoners were killed in several jails in the neighbouring state of Amazonas in violence also blamed on an apparent drug trafficking gang dispute.
Most of the victims were killed by asphyxiation, the state government said at the time.
The federal government dispatched reinforcements to boost security in the jails.
Brazil has the world's third-largest prison population after the United States and China, with 726,354 inmates as of June 2017, according to the latest official statistics released this month.
The population is more than 40 per cent above the capacity of the nation's jails, which in the same year was estimated to be 423,242 inmates.
The federal government had been expected to add another 115,000 inmates by the end of 2018, Human Rights Watch said in a recent report.
Around 33 per cent of the prison population is made up of pretrial detainees.
Along with severe overcrowding and gang violence, riots and breakout attempts in Brazil's prisons are not uncommon.
Experts estimate hundreds of people are killed in prison violence every year in Brazil. Conditions have been described as inhuman, with most inmates poor, black and with little formal education.
"Brazilian policymakers have typically responded to the prison crisis by building more prisons, stiffening penalties and separating gang leaders from the rank and file," said Robert Muggah, research director at the Igarape Institute, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro.
"The only way the government can turn the situation around in the short term is by reducing the stock and flow of inmates."