MANAUS, Brazil (AP) — Shortly after midnight on New Year’s Eve, hundreds of inmates watched from a Manaus prison yard as the sky lit up with fireworks, paid for by the gangs that dominate the jail system.
The revelry continued well into the next afternoon, and inmates celebrated with their wives and girlfriends. But then the guards noticed something strange: The prisoners were asking their guests to go. The last family member left at 4:09 p.m. on New Year’s Day.
What happened next would go beyond any worst-case scenario imagined by guards or authorities, unleashing a brutality that would lay bare a failed prison system and a gruesome battle between gangs for influence in Latin America’s largest nation. The bloodshed would be the worst at any Brazilian prison in the past 25 years.
The Associated Press gained exclusive access to the Complexo Penitenciario Anisio Jobim. What follows is based on the facility visit, footage from inmates on their mobile phones, forensics reports obtained by the AP, and more than a dozen interviews with families of victims, authorities, lawyers, prison guards, judges, the warden and investigators.
“This was unprecedented,” said Carlos Procopio dos Reis, in charge of the medical forensics unit in Manaus. “I still dream that I am in a truck throwing heads for people to catch.”
Known by its Portuguese acronym of Compaj, the Manaus prison compound sprawls into the Amazon jungle. Families spend at least an hour on a prison bus line to get to the isolated penitentiary. Designed for 592 inmates, it held 1,224 on New Year’s Day.
Manaus, a violent and gritty northern city of 2 million people, is the jumping-off point to the Amazon and central to Northern Brazil’s growing drug trade. For years, Brazil’s two most powerful gangs had a non-aggression pact. But that truce ruptured in October, for reasons experts say are still unclear, leading to riots in several prisons. At least 130 inmates have been killed in lockups nationwide since Jan. 1.
Instead of going back to their cells after the New Year’s party, inmates from the Family of the North gang surrounded a prison guard and took him hostage, with a blade to his neck. Then they announced their larger intention: To get rid of all members of the rival First Command gang, also known as PCC.
“We will kick out of this prison every single PCC brain!” a prisoner from Family of the North yelled to the Compaj cameras.
The Family of the North moved quickly. Carrying knives, homemade shivs and even several pistols, prisoners led the first hostage into the atrium. There, they took another 14 guards and other staff hostage, including a cook and a nurse.
At 4:30 p.m., Family of the North prisoners began entering an area where many members of First Command were housed. The wing was known as “the safe.”
Family of the North local leaders – nicknamed “Maraba,” ”Caroco,” ”Demetrio,” ”Garrote,” ”Rivellino” and “Maguila” – headed the charge.
Crammed into their cells, many First Command prisoners had little room to run or means to fight back. Over the next 15 minutes, several were shot, stabbed or both. The screams of horror and pain filled the lockup. No guards tried to intervene, as several had been taken hostage.
In the next 30 minutes, prisoners dragged dozens of bodies into the area dubbed Pavilion 3. Then Family of the North members began cutting. In total, 39 heads were lined up on the floor.
They also lopped off and piled up limbs and cut out 13 eyes and two hearts. One guard was forced to eat an eyeball. A transvestite prisoner was made to take bites of a heart, throwing up as she did so.
The first negotiations started at 6:30 p.m., when a human rights activist and lawyer who knew many prisoners spoke with them through a radio device.
At 6:45 p.m., the first hostage was released for medical attention. By 9 p.m., a full battalion of riot police was firing on about 225 prisoners trying to escape, some by climbing the walls. It’s unclear how many died. Families and prison guards believe there are still bodies in the surrounding woods.
At 3 a.m., an agreement was reached. The prisoners bargained for regular visitation of family, time outside the cell and the collection of bodies by medical forensics. In exchange, they would release the remaining hostages and hand over weapons and phones.
At about 7 a.m., the first of 39 heads arrived at the coroner’s office in downtown Manaus. In total, 57 prisoners were killed.
The massacre has left devastated families in its wake. Maria Angelina Muniz had two sons, ages 20 and 27, killed. One was in jail for theft and the other trafficking. Neither had been convicted.
“We knew they had a debt to society, they were paying,” Muniz said. “But now my life is destroyed because of this war.”
Seventeen inmates have been prosecuted and sent to tight-security federal prisons. The prison director, suspected of allowing weapons and mobiles into Compaj in exchange for money, has been fired. Former Amazonas Prison Secretary Pedro Florencio, a respected retired policeman, was also sacked because the massacre happened on his watch.
“To this day, I close my eyes and see parts of bodies of inmates everywhere,” Florencio said. “For me that New Year’s Day will never end.”