BRASILIA—A gang fight in a prison in Brazil’s Para state left at least 57 dead, many by decapitation or asphyxiation, adding to a string of gruesome clashes in the country’s overloaded prison system as the government struggles to fight rampant crime.
The violence started at around 7 a.m. Monday when members of one of the prison’s two leading gangs broke into a shipping container modified to hold members of a rival gang. The attackers beheaded 16 of their enemies before setting the place on fire, officials said. The fire spread, killing the remainder, said Jarbas Vasconcelos, head of the Para prison system.
“We don’t have all the bodies yet because [the container] remains too hot,” Mr. Vasconcelos told reporters. He said no firearms were found.
The victims all were being held in an area of the complex where shipping containers have been modified to hold prisoners.
Two prison agents were briefly held hostage but were unharmed, he said. “It was not an action against the prison system,” Mr. Vasconcelos said.
The facility, in the town of Altamira in Brazil’s Amazon region, was built to house 208 inmates, but it was holding 311 prisoners, said Mr. Vasconcelos.
Warring gangs have increasingly clashed inside Brazil’s prisons, often with gruesome results. Earlier this year, another prison riot in the Amazon region left 55 dead, stabbed with sharpened toothbrushes or strangled.
Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army captain who took the helm in January, has promised to attack rampant crime, but many of his law-enforcement measures are lingering in Congress.
Mr. Vasconcelos said Monday’s attack was quick and the situation was under control after the fire was subdued. He said the state’s prison intelligence service had no indications the attack was about to happen. An investigation is under way to find out who was behind the riot.
There are 811,066 people incarcerated in Brazil, a country of 200 million where roughly 64,000 people are assassinated per year, according to official data. Official data from 2017, the latest available, estimated the prison system’s occupation rate at 172%.
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