THE rampage lasted 17 hours. By the end of it, 56 inmates of the Anísio Jobim prison complex in Manaus, a city set amid the Amazon rainforest, were dead. Many had been decapitated; severed arms and legs were stacked by the entrance to the jail, known to most as Compaj, a contraction of its full name. Luís Carlos Valois, a judge who negotiated an end to the violence on January 2nd, called the hellish scene “Dantesque”. It was Brazil’s bloodiest prison riot in a quarter-century.
Only the death toll makes the carnage at Compaj stand out. Brazil’s prisons erupt often. Last year 18 inmates died in clashes between gangs at prisons in the northern states of Roraima and Rondônia. In Pernambuco, a north-eastern state whose prisons are overstuffed even by Brazilian standards, violent deaths are a frequent occurrence. In January 2016, 93 prisoners broke out of two of the state’s jails.

Prisons are both hellholes and headquarters for Brazil’s most powerful criminal gangs. The country’s prison population of 622,000, the world’s fourth-largest, is crammed into jails built to hold 372,000 inmates. Compaj houses 2,200, nearly four times its capacity. Guards often do little more than patrol the perimeters, leaving gangs free to manage far-flung criminal operations via mobile phones.
The riot at Compaj suggests that prison violence—and the behaviour of the gangs behind it—is entering a new phase. Officials in the state of Amazonas say members of Família do Norte (Family of the North, or FDN), which controls drug trafficking in the Amazon region, organised the Compaj massacre. Having gained control over much of the prison, the gang sought to wipe out opposition from Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital, or PCC), a larger rival based in São Paulo, a south-eastern state. 
The assault on the PCC seems to be a reaction to its growing strength. Formed in 1993 by inmates in São Paulo after police massacred more than 100 prisoners at the notorious Carandiru jail, it has branched out into drug running, extortion and prostitution, often with the tacit consent of prison authorities. The PCC killed the last big rival drug trafficker in Paraguay in 2016. That gave it dominance over smuggling along the borders with Paraguay and Bolivia, and thus over the supply of cocaine and marijuana to the south-east, Brazil’s richest region. It used that advantage to become the country’s biggest and most profitable organised-crime group. Exploiting its growing control of the main entry points for drugs, the PCC moved beyond its home region and now has a nationwide presence. The battle at Compaj is “principally a reaction to the growing power of the PCC across Brazil in the distribution of drugs”, says Bruno Paes Manso, a criminologist at the University of São Paulo.
At first, the PCC co-operated with the dominant forces in other states. In Rio de Janeiro it formed a narcotics-distribution alliance with the Comando Vermelho (Red Command, or CV). But the paulistas used their growing might to force their partner into a subordinate position, which provoked a rupture. The PCC has since teamed up with the CV’s main rival, the Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends). Prosecutors say the arrangement has allowed the São Paulo group to take control of Rocinha, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, thought to be the city’s most profitable drug market.
The CV has responded by forming alliances with other crime groups threatened by the PCC’s expansion. Among them are the FDN, Brazil’s third-biggest gang, which controls drug-smuggling routes in the Amazon. The clashes in Roraima and Rondônia were a harbinger of the Compaj massacre. Most of the dead were members of the FDN and the CV, targeted by the PCC in revenge for attacks mounted by the FDN the year before.
Payback time
Officials now wonder where and when the PCC will retaliate. The retribution will come from calculation, not rage, says Guaracy Mingardi, a criminologist. But come it will. The PCC “cannot remain quiet, as they will lose prestige, and prestige in the long term represents money”.
There is little prospect that governments will do much to end the cycle of violence. Alexandre de Moraes, Brazil’s justice minister, said the ringleaders of the Compaj massacre will be transferred to federal prisons. The federal government promised at the end of 2016 to spend an extra 1.2bn reais ($370m) quickly to build and modernise state prisons. But that will not be enough to improve conditions that a previous justice minister described as “medieval”. The cash-strapped federal government will have a hard time finding more. Historically, it has preferred to let state governments, which house nearly all of Brazil’s prisoners, bear the burden of managing and paying for the system.
They, in turn, have neither the money nor the ideas needed to improve conditions. Politicians and judges are more eager to lock up criminals, especially if they are poor and black, than they are to reduce overcrowding. About two-fifths of Brazil’s prisoners are awaiting trial rather than serving sentences; university graduates, priests and others are entitled to wait in comfier conditions.
Governments also fear that a crackdown on violence in prisons will cause trouble outside them. An attempt by São Paulo’s government in 2006 to curb the prison-based operations of the PCC set off a campaign of violence by the gang’s confederates across the state. Hundreds died over ten days in attacks on policemen and the reprisals they provoked. Politicians prefer to keep the violence within prison walls.