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On March 16, riots broke out in four prisons in the state of São Paulo in Brazil. The novel coronavirus was at the heart of these disturbances: the prisoners rebelled at the announcement that their temporary release was canceled due to the pandemic. A few hours after the clashes began at the Mongaguá medium-security prison, inmates could be seen jogging out of the premises. Videos of the escape, posted on Twitter, looked as apocalyptic as a high-budget Netflix series.
“Come back on Monday!” a desperate voice cries out.
As many as 1,375 inmates escaped before the upheaval subsided. But the anxieties provoked by the virus continued to spread throughout the region’s prisons. Two days later, on March 18, 80 prisoners escaped from a penitentiary in Santa Bárbara, Venezuela. In the subsequent fighting between the prisoners and the authorities, at least 12 other inmates died. An Agence France–Presse report linked the tumult to new restrictions on prison life imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Similarly, on March 21, inmates from La Modelo prison in Bogotá, Colombia, rebelled. The ensuing battle with the authorities left 23 prisoners dead and another 83 injured. The prison director claimed the inmates were trying to escape; the prisoners said they were being treated “like dogs” even as the virus spread.
The unrest only continues to mount. Throughout the month of April and the first days of May, there were coronavirus-related riots and jailbreak attempts in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela.
Latin America faces a potential crisis in its prisons as the pandemic descends. Correctional facilities in the region are overflowing. In the last 20 years, according to the World Prison Brief, Brazil’s prison population has multiplied from 233,000 to 773,000, stretching the country’s carceral system more than 68 percent beyond its intended capacity. In Colombia, over the same time period, the prison population has risen from 52,000 to 122,000—51 percent more people than the country’s prison infrastructure was designed to handle. And in Venezuela, the number of prisoners has gone from 14,000 to 57,000, an excess population of 54 percent.
To prevent the spread of the coronavirus throughout the region’s prisons, several Latin American justice departments have announced their intentions to take low-level offenders out of minimum-security penitentiaries and place them under house arrest. Some have also considered refashioning the large, educational spaces inside prisons to house the sick or the vulnerable. These measures may temporarily reduce the system’s immediate pressures. But as cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, continue to mount, the reforms may prove to be too little, too late.
Prisoners in Latin America rely mostly on friends, family, and their fellow inmates to deliver essential goods and services that the state does not provide. These include food, clothing, toothbrushes, and blankets, as well as physical protection from the worst that prison has to offer. Indeed, some of the region’s strongest criminal organizations have acquired large memberships precisely because they fill these gaps.
The First Capital Command (PCC), Brazil’s largest and most powerful prison gang, is a case in point. In 1992, a riot erupted in the Carandiru penitentiary in the city of São Paulo. With 8,000 inmates, the prison was Latin America’s largest. To quell the fighting among the prisoners, the government sent in the military police, who killed 111 inmates. The PCC was created in 1993 in response to that incident and grew steadily afterward, because it satisfied prisoners’ basic needs and established order where the state could not. According to Karina Biondi’s book Sharing This Walk, rape in PCC-controlled prisons dropped to near zero percent. “Many prisoners today see the creation of the PCC as having extinguished the climate of constant war, of ‘all against all,’” Biondi writes.
The organization also provided for members’ families, collecting money from its rank and file to pay for relatives to travel long distances in buses and stay in houses or hotels near the prisons on the weekends so that they could visit their loved ones. The PCC supplied lawyers. It negotiated better health and living conditions with prison authorities. And it protected its own on the outside.
The PCC cadres were no angels, of course. When the government challenged them, they organized riots inside the prisons. In May 2006, such disturbances spilled onto the streets. PCC members burned buses, attacked police stations, assassinated police officers, and effectively paralyzed São Paulo, a city of 20 million. Schools and businesses were closed for days until the government negotiated a settlement.
Gangs understand that their role is to fill gaps when the state is absent.
The PCC amassed power through these actions, and it soon spread far and wide. By 2017, the organization had reached nearly every state in Brazil. It even established outposts in Bolivia and Paraguay. Today, the group controls many of the drug distribution points and regulates much of the crime in its areas of operation. Homicide rates in São Paulo state, for example, went from among the highest in the country to among the lowest, due in part to this criminal governance. The PCC has as many as 30,000 members and is steadily taking over the burgeoning international drug trade in Brazil.
Particularly within the prisons, the PCC has taken on the role of the state, guaranteeing security and critical services to its members. Other criminal gangs in the region have assumed similar roles. The MS-13 and 18th Street gangs are among the main suppliers and protectors of gang members inside Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran prisons. Colombian criminal organizations provide the same supply-line and protection services to their members in detention. Even extremely predatory prison gangs—such as those in Venezuela—understand that their role is to fill gaps when the state is absent.
That absence has never been more palpable than now. Prisons in Latin America, as elsewhere, are natural incubators, so it is probably only a matter of time before the coronavirus spreads in their confines. Health conditions in Mexican and Venezuelan prisons were particularly poor before the crisis struck. And because governments have long neglected health care and basic sanitary conditions in the region’s prisons, the pandemic gives criminal organizations—now perceived as the first line of defense against the pandemic—even more leverage than they already had.
The deluge may have already begun. On April 8, officials registered Brazil’s first prison-based case of COVID-19 at a jail in the north of the country. A week later, the government reported cases in three other prisons. Then–Justice Minister Sérgio Moro insisted the situation was “under control.” On April 11, Colombia confirmed coronavirus-related deaths inside a prison.
The pandemic gives criminal organizations even more leverage than they already had.
Governments are scrambling. In Brazil, the National Justice Council, an advisory body of the country’s justice department, issued a statement recommending that low-level offenders be removed from minimum-security prisons and placed under house arrest as “a way to avoid conflicts, riots, and rebellions.” Other countries are contemplating similar measures, but they will not be able to lower the prison population at the speed necessary to mitigate the virus’s spread, especially given the terrible sanitary conditions within the facilities.
If Latin American governments cannot effectively address the pandemic within their prisons, gangs will step in to exploit their failings. In so doing, the gangs will fortify their power both inside and outside prison walls. Mass quarantine, after all, is not an aberration or a hindrance to their operations: it is already a way of life, making them readier for the economic and social effects of the virus. Gangs, for instance, will be the ones trying to contain the virus’s spread inside the prisons and the ones choosing who among the infected gets treatment and who does not. When supply lines are cut, the gangs will decide which prisoners get provisions and which get none. When riots erupt, the gangs will determine which prisoners are armed.
But Not If Governments Beat Them to the Punch