The Marie Antoinette of Maranhão

Day by day, a gruesome chain of horrors is being revealed at the prison of Pedrinhas in the Maranhão capital, São Luis. In less than a year, 62 prisoners have been murdered in the overcrowded prison, where petty thieves are thrown in with hardened criminals; some of them were decapitated.

One prisoner, Ronalton Silva Rabelo, simply disappeared in April last year. His family say they heard that his body had been cut into pieces which were thrown into the rubbish, and then taken away in a garbage truck. They have been unable to find out whether this is true or not.

The wives and sisters of prisoners who were not gang members were forced to have sex with gang leaders during conjugal visits; otherwise their husbands or brothers would have been killed.

Pedrinhas prisonPrisoners awaiting trial for petty crimes were kept with sentenced criminals. Among those decapitated in October last year was a mechanic, accused, but not yet tried, for receiving three stolen tyres. Some inmates wait for years for their cases to be heard. Other prisoners are not released even when they have served their sentences, because of endemic delays in the judicial system.

Rival gangs control different sectors of the prison, with guards afraid to enter. Many of the prison guards are untrained, low-paid staff supplied by subcontracted firms, which facilitates corruption. During a recent search carried out by military police, scores of mobile phones, homemade knives and a gun were found in cells.

A mobile phone was used to order attacks on buses in São Luis, in reprisal for police actions. One bus was set alight with the passengers, including two small children, still inside. A six-year-old girl died of her burns, and it was this appalling incident that finally sparked a national outcry over the conditions at Pedrinhas prison, and the failure of the state governor, Roseana Sarney, to control, or in any way prevent, the descent into barbarity in the prison.

The press revealed that the firms who were given the lucrative contracts for supplying not only untrained staff but food not fit for consumption, belonged to people with close links to the Sarney family.

A cartoon by BIRA depicting Roseana Sarney’s ambition to turn the whole of Brazil into a ‘Giant Maranhão’.

The governor’s annual order for restocking the palace larder showed that, until the outcry over the prison scandal, Roseana Sarney and her family were expecting in 2014 to enjoy lobsters, prawns, salmon, steaks, ice cream and other delicacies worth R$1 million (£260,000) while prisoners ate “rotten meat, raw chicken, cold rice”. The procurement process for food purchaes has now been suspended.

Wounded prisoner from Pedrinhas jailLike Marie Antoinette during the French revolution, Roseana Sarney justified the situation with her own peculiar logic. She said the crime situation in Maranhão was getting worse because the state is now richer, which means the number of inhabitants has risen. In fact, Maranhão has, proportionately, the highest number of people living in extreme poverty in Brazil.  According to IBGE, the government’s statistical institute, out of a total population of 6.5 million, 1.7 million live below the poverty line, earning less than R$70 (£18) a month. The state also has the worst illiteracy rate (23%), the second worst infant mortality rate (36.5 per 1,000 live births, over twice the national average of 16 in 2009), the second worst life expectancy and the worst housing deficit in the country.

It is hardly surprising that so many maranhenses flee the state looking for a better life. You find them all over the Amazon, in the garimpos, or on cattle farms, where they often end up as slave labourers.

What the horrors of Pedrinhas have revealed is what happens when one family – in this case, the Sarneys — are allowed to rule a state like absolute monarchs for fifty years, amassing personal fortunes but denying the most basic human rights to the unfortunate population who live there.

And what is just as unacceptable is the attitude of the federal government of President Dilma Rousseff, who has pussyfooted around the problem, because Senator José Sarney is a valuable political ally, who must be kept on side during an election year. It seems that the ends justify the means, even at the cost of immense human suffering. It will not be surprising if the names Pedrinhas, Sarney and Ana Clara, the little girl who was burnt to death, feature large in the protests of 2014.

 

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Veteran correspondent and regular LAB contributor Jan Rocha writes about life in São Paulo and Brazil