Brazil: Police Condemned for the Carandiru Massacre

[All links lead to Portuguese-language pages unless otherwise noted.]

More than 20 years after the rebellion in São Paulo’s Carandiru Penitentiary, which ended with the deaths of 111 inmates and became known as the ‘Carandiru Massacre’, 23 military police have been condemned to 156 years in jail for a total of 13 fatalities.

After two postponements, the first part of the trial – which lasted a week in total – was concluded on 21 April, 2013, with the sentence read by judge José Augusto Nardi Marzagão.

Minutes after the announcement of the sentence, #Carandiru had already become a Trending Topic on Twitter in Brazil, with internet users commentating on the result of the trial which came a whole 20 years after the event concerned.

The internet was divided on opinion. Across the official profile of rap group Racionais MCs (@RacionaisCN), well-known for their lyrics which often portray life behind bars, there was a mood of celebration:

Law students from the University of São Paulo (USP) place 111 crosses in front of the law faculty in the centre of the city in memory of the prisoners killed by military polive at Candiru in 1992. Photo by Marcelo Camargo, Agência Brasil

Law students from the University of São Paulo (USP) place 111 crosses in front of the law faculty in the centre of the city in memory of the prisoners killed by military polive at Candiru in 1992. Photo by Marcelo Camargo, Agência Brasil (CC BY 3.0)

Justiça!! Massacre do Carandiru: 91% lembram, mas só 10% creem em prisão. via ‪@revistaforum

Justice! Carandiru massacre: 91% remember but only 10% believe the prison [of police officers]. via ‪@revistaforum

However, there was also a great number who protested against the judgement:

@DarioAlvesLima: policiais do Carandiru condenados, que Justiça é essa sempre a favor dos bandidos e contra a população sofrida e cumpridora dos Impostos.

@DarioAlvesLima: police condemned for Carandiru, Justice is always in favour of the bandits and against the poor old tax-payers

@leraffaelli: Os policiais que estão sendo julgados pelo massacre do Carandiru, deveriam receber medalhas ao invés de pena!!!

@leraffaelli: the police being condemned for the Candiru massacre should instead be receiving medals rather than punishments!

Twenty years on without a sentence

On 2 October, 1992, a game of football in Carandiru ended with a fight breaking out between prisoners from rival gangs, resulting in the seizure of ‘Pavillion 9’. In an attempt to stop the inmates, 300 police officers from São Paulo’s Military Police invaded the prison and quashed the rebellion under the command of police chief Ubiratan Guimarães [en]. The outcome of this was the death of 111 prisoners [en].

Image of the old penitentiary complex. Public domain.

Image of the old penitentiary complex. Public domain.

In 2000, eight years after the conflict, police chief Ubiratan was the first of the 120 accused to be judged. Yet, a mere two years after being condemned to 623 years in prison, Ubiratan was elected State Deputy. The vacancy guaranteed to the police tribunal was restricted and, in 2006, he was officially pardoned by a ‘special organ of the Tribunal of Justice’, which claimed that he was only doing his duty in ordering the invasion of the prison. As Ubiratan took sole responsibility for the order to invade, the State Governor, Luiz Antonio Fleury Filho, and the Secretary of Public Security, Pedro Franco de Campos, were exempted from the process. Fleury testified on Tuesday, 16 April 2013, that he had held ‘political responsibility’ and defined the actions of the military police as ‘legitimate.’

In the era during which the Massacre of Carandiru took place, the penitentiary housed an incarcerated population of nearly 9000 prisoners. This was almost triple the amount it was meant to contain at maximum capacity. The economist and blogger Luiz Cezar, who had visited the place several days before the insurrection, remembers the confession of Ismael Pedrosa, director of the penitentiary:

Ao lado do ex-deputado Álvaro Fraga, ouvi do diretor um relato desesperançado sobre a falta de recursos, a impossibilidade de separação de detentos e a confissão de que a qualquer momento “a panela de pressão iria arrebentar”.

At the side of the ex-deputy Alvaro Fraga, the director listened to a desperate account on the lack of excuses, the impossibility of separation of the prisoners and the confession that at any moment “the pressure cooker could explode.”

In the documentary “Carandiru’s Bloody Memories”, posted on Vice News website, an ex-agent of the prison uses powerful imagery to portray daily life inside the biggest penitentiary in Latin America. The agent, who referred to several rebellions inside Carandiru, revealed that in the case of a prisoner rebellion, to effectively control it was nigh on impossible. On any given day in Pavillion 9, there were between 2-3 agents responsible for the oversight of more than 1,800 prisoners.

Homage to the 20th anniversary of the Carandiru Massacre in São Paulo. Photo by veredaestreita/ Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Homage to the 20th anniversary of the Carandiru Massacre in São Paulo. Photo by veredaestreita/ Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

With around 550,000 people living behind bars, and being home to the fourth biggest population of incarcerated people in the world, this trial has given Brazil the opportunity to deal with one of the worst chapters of its recent history. Most of the people responsible for the massacre continue to work as public servants without any type of penalty. The delay of the trial was with many of the crimes ordered, leaving only 79 of the 300 police officers thus subject to trial. In the Corte Interamericana de Direitos Humanos (Interamerican Court of Human Rights), the case was classified as an ‘an unpunished crime’.

Yet the condemned could still appeal against their sentence, and there exists a great possibility that the police officers will have to serve only 3% of their sentence. One of the main prosecutors in the case, Fernando Pereira da Silva, suggests that the sentence thus serves as a form of appeasing society:

Tínhamos a preocupação de a população entender que a vida do ser humano não é descartável. A invisibilidade social daqueles indivíduos, presos à época de um massacre, não pode prevalecer sobre o descumprimento da lei.

The concern for our population is to understand that the life of a human being is not worthless. The social invisibility of these individuals – prisoners at the time of the massacre – cannot prevail over the failure of the law.

As journalist and blogger Leonardo Sakamoto writes, a country like Brazil is not used to punishing the past:

Momentos como o julgamento que se encerrou nesta madrugada são importantes para que a sociedade consiga saldar as contas com seu passado, revelando-o, discutindo-o, entendendo-o. Para evitar que ele aconteça de novo.

Mais do que um país sem memória e com pouca Justiça, temos diante de nós um Brasil conivente com a violência como principal instrumento de ação policial.

Moments like this result are important for society because it allows us to deal with our past; revealing it, discussing it and understanding it. This will hopefully mean that this type of event does not happen again.

As well as being a ‘forgetful’ country and possessing a weak justice system, we are now faced with a Brazil which uses violence as the principal instrument of political action.

This was proved in a survey undertaken by instituto Datafolha which revealed that the bloody memory of Carandiru is still alive in Brazilian society with 91% of the population claiming to remember the case. Yet, in the interim years, the percentage of people who say they approve the actions of the police has increased from 29% to 36%.

Of the 26 policemen accused in April 2013, 23 were condemned and three were pardoned at the request of the prosecution. In this first part of the trial, the officers were supposed to be judged for the deaths of 15 prisoners, however, two fatalities were excluded from the records because the reports suggested that their deaths were caused by white arms and not firearms.

The decision of the first tribunal may or may not influence the results of the following trials of the remaining 53 military police. Of the 84 accused, 79 are still living but, as was declared in a public notice from Amnesty International, the condemnation “represents an important step in the confrontation against the impunity which so often comes hand-in-hand with the serious violation of human rights, especially when concerning the Brazilian penitentiary system.”

Apesar dos 20 anos de espera, a sentença (…) sinaliza que justiça brasileira não irá admitir abusos cometidos pelo estado contra a população carcerária.

Mesmo sem a responsabilização das altas autoridades do Estado de SP à época do massacre, como o governador e o secretário de segurança, a Anistia Internacional acredita que este resultado é um passo importante na garantia de justiça para as vítimas, seus familiares e sobreviventes do Carandiru.

Despite the 20 years of wait, this sentence…signifies that the Brazilian justice system still will not admit abuses committed by the state against the incarcerated population. Even without holding to account the high authorities of the state of Sao Paulo at the time, such as the governor and the secretary of security, Amnesty International believes that this result is an important step towards justice for the victims, their families and the survivors of Carandiru.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.