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Four inmates in Brazil’s deadly prison riot die during journey to new jail

They appear to have suffocated on the journey to the town of Maraba.

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A police helicopter flies over the Regional Recovery Centre, a prison, in Altamira (Wilson Soares/AP)

A police helicopter flies over the Regional Recovery Centre, a prison, in Altamira (Wilson Soares/AP)

A police helicopter flies over the Regional Recovery Centre, a prison, in Altamira (Wilson Soares/AP)

Security officials in Brazil say four of the inmates allegedly involved in a deadly prison riot have died of suffocation while being transported to a different facility.

The Para state public security office said they were discovered dead when the prison vehicle arrived in the town of Maraba on Wednesday.

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Prisoners allegedly involved in the killing of other inmates during a prison riot in Altamira, are led to a prisoner transport vehicle (Raimundo Pacco/AP)

Prisoners allegedly involved in the killing of other inmates during a prison riot in Altamira, are led to a prisoner transport vehicle (Raimundo Pacco/AP)

AP/PA Images

Prisoners allegedly involved in the killing of other inmates during a prison riot in Altamira, are led to a prisoner transport vehicle (Raimundo Pacco/AP)

Authorities say the vehicle had four compartments and was carrying 30 handcuffed inmates who were suspected of involvement in a clash between gangs at the Altamira prison on Monday that killed at least 58 inmates.

Authorities say the four who died were from the same gang.

They say they are investigating the case.

The prisoners were among 46 being sent to other prisons, including stricter federal ones.

Local authorities confirmed late Tuesday at least 33 inmates had been moved to the state capital of Belem, from where they would be sent to other jails.

Only 15 of the bodies from the riot had been released to family members by late Tuesday.

Workers at the coroner’s office said they were slowed by the small size of the facility as well as problems with lighting that meant they had to stop working at 6:30pm.

In the Amazon heat, the bodies were being kept in a large refrigerated vehicle.

Dozens of frustrated family members spent the day waiting outside the morgue, and forensic expert Marcel Ferreira said some passed out when called on to identify the bodies of beheaded loved ones.

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People seek information about family members (Wilson Soares/AP)

People seek information about family members (Wilson Soares/AP)

AP/PA Images

People seek information about family members (Wilson Soares/AP)

Sixteen of the inmates had been decapitated.

State officials said clashes erupted in Altamira early Monday when the local Comando Classe A gang attacked a wing of the prison holding members of the rival Comando Vermelho, or Red Command.

In many of Brazil’s prisons, badly outnumbered guards struggle to retain control over an ever-growing population of inmates, with jailed gang leaders often able to run their criminal activities from behind bars.

Comando Classe A members allegedly set fire to the temporary containers where inmates belonging to Red Command were being held while construction of another wing was under way.

Most of the victims died of asphyxiation.

“This is clearly a declaration of war on the Red Command,” said Jean-Francois Deluchey, adjunct professor in political science at the Federal University of Para who has been studying the region for 20 years.

Authorities have not yet revealed the exact motive for the clash, only confirming that it was a fight between criminal groups.

But several recent prison massacres have been attributed to gangs battling to control drug-trafficking routes in the multi-billion-dollar Amazon drug trade.

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A woman comforts her daughter outside the coroner’s office (Raimundo Pacco/AP)

A woman comforts her daughter outside the coroner’s office (Raimundo Pacco/AP)

AP/PA Images

A woman comforts her daughter outside the coroner’s office (Raimundo Pacco/AP)

In May, two days of unrest in the neighbouring state of Amazonas left 55 prisoners dead in four different prisons of that state’s capital, Manaus.

In 2017, more than 120 inmates died in prisons across several northern states.

“It’s the same logic, the same movement,” Mr Deluchey said.

According to him, Red Command has a strong presence in the north and is trying to expand further in the region.

Mr Deluchey said it is hard to confirm with certainty, but initial reports indicated that Comando Classe A, a local gang thought to have been created recently inside the Altamira prison, is linked to another powerful Brazilian gang, First Capital Command.

“The First Capital Command is losing grounds and it looks like Comando Classe A is helping them stop the hegemony of Red Command,” he said.

The professor said he had already seen promises of retaliations by members of Red Command for Monday’s attack.

Gruesome violence is often used in Brazilian prisons to gain respect and send a strong message to new arrivals, he said.

“Violence is to impress, to frighten, so that new (inmates) join the side of those who decapitate, and not the decapitated.”

The killings represent a challenge for the far-right administration of President Jair Bolsonaro.

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A woman cries as she waits outside the coroner’s office in Altamira (Raimundo Pacco/AP)

A woman cries as she waits outside the coroner’s office in Altamira (Raimundo Pacco/AP)

AP/PA Images

A woman cries as she waits outside the coroner’s office in Altamira (Raimundo Pacco/AP)

Mr Bolsonaro ran a tough-on-crime campaign, promising to curb epidemic violence in Brazil, including in its overcrowded and out-of-control prisons.

The president publicly addressed the killings on Tuesday in a video published on the online G1 news portal.

Asked by journalists whether security should be strengthened at Altamira prison, Mr Bolsonaro replied: “Ask the victims of those who died in there what they think.”

Brazil has the world’s third-largest prison population, behind the United States and China, with more than 720,000 individuals behind bars, according to official data from 2017.

Some Brazilian prisons have more than three times as many inmates as their maximum capacity.

At Altamira, a local judge revealed in a July report that he had counted 343 detainees in a facility authorised for a maximum of 163 people.

PA