Brazil’s barbarous prison system has again captured the international community’s attention. Recently, 55 inmates were killed in prisons in the northern state of Amazonas in just 48 hours, despite advanced warnings. Gruesome prison riots, which organized crime groups use to send a message to both their rivals and the state, have failed to raise prison reform as a political priority in joint US-Brazil efforts to quell organized crime in the hemisphere. Yet, gang-related massacres should serve as a poignant wakeup call to Brazilian and American policymakers alike: prisons have become one of the epicenters of the region’s fight against transnational organized crime.

Inmates are seen through a hole in the wall, in front of riot policemen, during an uprising at Alcacuz prison in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte state, Brazil, January 21, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Far from keeping Brazilians safe from violent criminals, the country’s prisons have long served as a home base for criminal groups like the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) or the Comando Vermelho (CV), both of which have deep transnational operations spanning the continent, Europe, and Asia. The PCC, in particular, has established connections with Hezbollah’s drug trafficking and money laundering operations and the lion’s share of the country’s cocaine market valued at nearly $8 billion per year.

The important node Brazil’s prison gangs represent in the transnational organized crime map means that the US can no longer ignore them and their main space of operation. Brazilian inmates communicate freely with gang leaders on the outside, effectively converting prisons into logistics hubs for trafficking drugs and deadly weapons. Inmates have little choice in the matter: those arriving without existing affiliations are sorted into gangs shortly thereafter. Former prisoners who return to society often do so with a graduate degree in criminality and enduring links to criminal groups.

In response to its epidemic of violence, the Brazilian state has vastly increased its prison population. Between 2008 and 2018, Brazil’s prison population nearly doubled from around 450,000 to 840,000, despite having space for less than half of the current number. President Jair Bolsonaro has promised to double down on this strategy and “stuff prisons full of criminals” with his tough-on-crime approach. Furthermore, the Minister for Justice and Public Security, Sérgio Moro, has crafted legislation that lengthens prison sentences for the most hardened criminals.

Longer sentences, however, will place further strain on Brazil’s already overcrowded prisons. Literally, the country cannot build space for prisoners quickly enough. Brazil created spots for about 9,000 new inmates in 2018, while the number of inmates grew by nearly 18,000. In other words, absent other criminal justice reforms, Brazil will need to double the pace of building in 2019 and beyond in order to keep up with the country’s burgeoning prison population — to say nothing of actually ameliorating the overcrowding problem. Given the amount of activity criminal groups undertake behind prison walls, this situation represents a ticking time bomb in joint efforts against transnational organized crime.

To be sure, prison reform and criminal justice policy should remain the purview of domestic authorities, even as it is clear that these efforts have outsized implications for broader regional security. The US should use its growing influence with the Bolsonaro administration to encourage more than a mere shuffling of problematic inmates to different prisons. The real problem is the Brazilian state’s systematic dependence on organized crime for maintaining any semblance of control over prisons. Decades of neglect have led to a dangerous co-dependence between the state and organized crime; the state countenances the presence of organized crime groups in prisons because they maintain a lid on prisoner activity. However, such erosion of state authority — and the corruption networks that have filled this vacuum — vitiates other efforts under discussion in the US-Brazil Permanent Security Forum.

In the shared fight against transnational organized crime, neither Brazil nor the US can afford to ignore that in the last decade, 24 of its 26 states have experienced deadly prison riots. Last October, Brazilian voters pinned their hopes for a more secure society on then-candidate Bolsonaro’s promise to defeat organized crime and reduce the country’s heinous levels of violence. Many in the Trump administration now recognize the opportunity Bolsonaro’s presidency represents for deeper cooperation on shared regional security objectives. Brazil’s recent prison slayings demonstrate how both countries should view Brazil’s prison system and the gangs that reside within them as a threat to regional security, and reform as a major step in the joint effort against transnational organized crime.

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