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MANAUS, Brazil (AP) — Brazilian officials said Tuesday up to 29 inmates blamed for killing sprees in several prisons will be transferred to stricter federal facilities, after two days of unrest left 55 prisoners dead and authorities rushing to prevent the violence from spreading.
Fighting between inmates began around noon on Sunday in a prison complex in Manaus, the capital of the northern Amazonas state. The state's governor, Wilson Lima, said the deaths were the result of infighting in one of the prison's criminal groups.
"We already had intelligence indicating there was a fissure between members of the same criminal fraction," Lima said in a press conference, without specifying which group.
Drug trafficking and criminal gangs are able to run much of their day-to-day business from Brazil's prisons, where they often have wide sway. Authorities frequently try to separate factions and transfer prisoners to prevent clashes.
In the Manaus complex, an emergency security protocol was activated and within 45 minutes the situation was under control, local authorities said. Still, 15 inmates were killed, either asphyxiated or murdered with hand-crafted arms such as sharpened toothbrushes.
The following day, more fights erupted in three other facilities, all in the same city of Manaus, leaving another 40 inmates dead and pushing federal authorities to send a special taskforce to avoid a scenario similar to that of January 2017, when weeks of gruesome prison killings left over 120 victims.
Nine inmates who were transferred to federal facilities on Tuesday are believed to have ordered the killings, authorities said. It is unclear when the other 20 prisoners will be transferred to federal facilities. As a precautionary measure, another 200 prisoners have also been moved to different cells.
While police forces were intervening to separate inmates considered at-risk, two detainees were shot as they tried to take prison staff hostage.
"As the troop advanced, they (inmates) were killing people choking them inside their cells," said Col. Vinicius Almeida, who leads the state prison office.
Family members of inmates gathered outside the prisons, waiting for information on their loved ones. Some outside the Puraquequara Prison Unit, or UPP, on Tuesday told The Associated Press they heard people screaming and calling for help from within the facility Monday night.
"I'm going to stand here until they give me some news," said Ediane Costa Soares, 38, whose 19-year-old son Anderson Soares de Souza, is an inmate at UPP.
Her son does not appear on the list of victims, but Costa Soares wants reassurance of her son's well-being after the riots. "They have not told us anything."
Another woman, Ana Claudia Bonfim da Silva, was also seeking information about her husband, Marinaldo Chavier, serving a five-year sentence at UPP for robbery.
"It's not easy because they are treated like animals inside. But they are humans not dogs. They (authorities) should give them a job, make them work, but there is not anything like that," she said.
Brazil has the world's third-largest prison population, with more than 720,000 individuals behind bars, according to 2016 data from the online database World Prison Brief. Many facilities are severely overcrowded, up to three times more than its maximum capacity, leaving guards outnumbered.
The Anisio Jobim Prison Complex, where 15 inmates died Sunday, was the scene of gruesome infighting two years ago that left 56 prisoners dead. Many of those victims had their heads cut off or their hearts and intestines ripped out.
In a separate episode, 18 prisoners escaped Monday from a prison in the state of Goias. Officials from the prison said Tuesday they had captured six of the fugitives.
Twenty members of the federal taskforce arrived in Manaus Tuesday for a period of 90 days, said state Gov. Lima in a press conference, adding that by the end of the week the number should rise to about 100 men.
AP video journalist Caivano reported from Manaus. AP journalist Jeantet reported from Rio de Janeiro.
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