Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 19: Comando Classe A (CCA) Massacre of Comando Vermelho (CV) Gang Members in Altamira Prison, Brazil—58 Dead (Including 16 Decapitations)
Robert J. Bunker, José de Arimatéia da Cruz and John P. Sullivan
An assault took place at Altamira prison in which a local gang—Comando Classe A (CCA); Class A Command—controlling one wing of the prison stormed another wing controlled by an opposing gang—Comando Vermelho (CV) or the Red Command. The Comando Vermelho wing of the prison was set on fire, resulting in multiple asphyxiation deaths along with sixteen pre-mortem decapitations as a component of the initial inter-gang warfare action.
Key Information: Gil Alessi, “Rebelião em presídio do Pará deixa ao menos 57 mortos.” El País. 29 July 2019, https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2019/07/29/politica/1564416995_796203.html:
Ao menos 57 presos morreram nesta segunda-feira durante rebelião no Centro de Recuperação Regional de Altamira, a cerca de 800 quilômetros de distância de Belém (Pará). De acordo com a Superintendência do Sistema Penitenciário do Pará (Susipe), ao menos 16 deles foram decapitados durante o conflito entre facções rivais, a maior matança do ano nas cadeias do país. Os detentos chegaram a fazer agentes penitenciários como reféns, mas eles foram liberados após negociações com as autoridades. Parte das vítimas foi asfixiada depois que os presos atearam fogo a colchões dentro das celas, de acordo com as autoridades. A Susipe informou que a confusão começou por volta das 7h, durante o café da manhã. O Centro tem capacidade para 208 internos, mas contava com 311 pessoas presas no local.
Na tarde desta segunda-feira, o Ministério da Justiça e Segurança Pública ofereceu ao Governo do Pará vagas em presídios federais para a transferência dos líderes da rebelião. "O ministro Sergio Moro lamentou as mortes e determinou a intensificação das ações de inteligência e que a Força Nacional fique de prontidão", informou o ministério em nota. Na mesma mensagem, Moro ressalta acompanhar a situação de perto e diz que conversou com o governador Hélder Barbalho "ainda na manhã desta segunda". No início da tarde foi realizada uma reunião de emergência para tratar do assunto com o secretário Nacional de Segurança Pública Adjunto, Freibergue Rubem do Nascimento, entre outras autoridades. Segundo as autoridades paraenses, 46 presos vão ser transferidos, incluindo 16 detentos apontados como líderes das facções criminosas…
Key Information: “Presos de Altamira são mortos dentro de caminhão durante transferência para Belém; governo do Pará apura circunstâncias.” G1. Globo.com. 31 July 2019, https://g1.globo.com/pa/para/noticia/2019/07/31/presos-de-altamira-sao-mortos-dentro-de-onibus-durante-transferencia-para-belem.ghtml:
Quatro envolvidos na briga entre facções que resultou no massacre do presídio de Altamira foram mortos durante o transporte para Belém, segundo a Secretaria de Estado de Segurança Pública (Segup). Com isso, o número de mortos no confronto chega a 62…
O governo do Pará apura as circunstâncias em que os crimes ocorreram. As mortes foram entre entre os municípios de Novo Repartimento e Marabá, entre as 19h terça-feira (30) e 1h desta quarta (31). Os presos eram levados algemados dentro de um caminhão, dividido em duas celas.
Os corpos foram encontrados na manhã desta quarta (31) com sinais de sufocamento, conforme informou a Superintendência do Sistema Penitenciário (Susipe). O órgão não deu detalhes de como ocorreu o sufocamento…
Note—at the end of this article there 9 additional article links [In Portuguese] related to the incident along with a satellite imagery map of the prison facility as well as name of all the victims.
Key Information: Tatiana Arias and Ivana Kottasová, “Prison riot in Brazil leaves 16 inmates decapitated and dozens more killed.” CNN. 30 July 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/29/americas/brazil-prison-riots-intl/index.html:
At least 57 people were killed, including 16 who were decapitated, during a vicious gang battle that erupted in a prison in northern Brazil on Monday morning.
The unrest is reported to have begun when a local gang stormed a wing of the facility in Para state controlled by a rival group, state news reported. The majority of the victims are believed to have died from asphyxiation, after gang members set fire to part of the prison complex.
State media said the violence began around 7 a.m., local time in the Regional Recovery Center in the city of Altamira and lasted for several hours. Video of the scene showed prisoners sat on the roof of the building, brandishing knifes and with their heads covered, amid smoke rising from the interior.
Two correctional guards taken captive were released, state media reported.
Ten of the 16 prisoners who were blamed for instigating the violence will be transferred to federal penitentiaries, state media reported, citing local authorities. More than 46 other prisoners will be moved to other prisons in Para…
Key Information: AP, “Brazil prison riot leaves 57 dead, 16 decapitated in ‘settling of accounts’ between rival gangs.” CBS News. 30 July 2019, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/brazil-prison-riot-dozens-dead-and-16-decapitated-alatmira-prison-para-state-2019-07-30/:
Rio De Janeiro — At least 57 prisoners were killed by other inmates during clashes between organized crime groups in the Altamira prison in northern Brazil Monday. Sixteen of the victims were decapitated, according to prison officials.
Para state prison authorities said a fight erupted around 7 a.m. between the Rio de Janeiro-based Comando Vermelho and a local criminal group known as Comando Classe A.
“Leaders of the (Comando Classe A) set fire to a cell belonging to one of the prison’s pavilions, where members of the (Comando Vermelho) were located,” the statement read.
State prisons chief Jarbas Vasconcelos said the fire had spread rapidly with inmates held in old container units that had been adapted for the prison while another building is under construction…
Key Information: “Brazil jail riot in Para state leaves 57 dead as gangs fight.” BBC News. 30 July 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-49157858:
At least 57 people have been killed in a prison riot in Brazil which saw rival gangs battle for five hours, officials say.
Gang members from one prison block invaded another part of Altamira jail in Pará state.
Sixteen of the dead were decapitated and the remainder suffocated after part of the prison was set on fire, officials said at a news conference.
Two prison officers who were taken hostage have since been freed.
The violence began at about 07:00 local time (10:00 GMT) on Monday, and ended at around noon, officials said.
Members of the Comando Classe A (CCA) gang set fire to a cell where rival gang members from Comando Vermelho (Red Command) were kept, the Pará state government said in a statement.
Key Information: Parker Asmann, “Northern Brazil Prison Massacre Suggests Shifting Criminal Dynamics.” InSight Crime. 1 August 2019, https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/northern-brazil-prison-massacre-suggests-shifting-criminal-dynamics/:
[The] gruesome prison massacre in northern Brazil has raised serious questions about potential shifts in criminal alliances in a highly strategic region of this South American nation.
As many as 57 inmates were killed in the worst prison massacre recorded so far in 2019 after fighting broke out between rival criminals gangs at the Altamira prison in Brazil’s northern Pará state on July 29, the country’s Justice and Public Security Ministry announced in a press release.
A local gang identified as the Class A Command (Comando Classe A — CCA) reportedly stormed a wing of the prison controlled by rivals in the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) as part of a broader war over control of the lucrative drug trade in Brazil’s Amazon. Gang members set fire to mattresses and decapitated at least 16 prisoners, according to local reports.
The prison riot was a “settling of scores between the two factions,” Pará’s prison director Jarbas Vasconcelos told local reporters from Agência Pará. He added that his team “had no [prior] information about an attack of this magnitude.”
However, Carlos André Costa, the deputy secretary of intelligence and criminal analysis in Pará, told Folha de São Paulo that authorities had obtained intelligence earlier in the month indicating that outside elements of the Red Command were driving south into areas controlled by the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) in Pará, suggesting that a potential war was brewing.
The CCA’s involvement in the massacre stems from its apparent alliance with the much more powerful PCC…
Third Generation Gang Analysis
At 0700 hours on Monday 29 July 2019, at Altamira prison in Pará state in northern Brazil, a three hour assault took place in which gang members belonging to Comando Classe A (CCA)—a vassal/allied gang to Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) or First Capital Command—attacked members belonging to the enemy gang Comando Vermelho (CV) or Red Command in their wing of the prison. Official prison and governmental statements pertaining to this incident are as follows [with translations provided]:
Source: “29 JUL: CLIPPING SUSIPE.” Superintendência do Sistema Penitenciário. 29 July 2019; p. 17; http://www.susipe.pa.gov.br/sites/default/files/29_07.pdf.
The Superintendency of the Pará Penitentiary System (Susipe) acted to control a rebellion that occuried in the Regional Recovery Center of Altamira (CRRAlt), on Monday (29), caused by the fight between criminal organizations. The rebellion began at about 7 am, when inmates of block A, where gang members are being held in detention belonging to a criminal organization, stormed the annex where a rival group was housed. Some members were killed and two prison officers were taken hostage.
After the first action, the annex was locked and the inmates set fire to the space. According to Susipe, smoke invaded the annex and some prisoners were killed by asphyxiation. There is no accounting of the total deaths so far. The Military Police Operational Tactical Group is on site. The Civil Police, the Prosecutor's Office, and the Altamira Court are also in the unit, participating in negotiations for the release of the hostages.
“Nota à imprensa” (Press Release), Ministério da Justiça e Segurança Pública, Governo Federal. Brasíla: 29 July 2019, https://www.justica.gov.br/news/collective-nitf-content-1564425029.72.
The Ministry of Justice and Public Security has made available vacancies in the Federal Penitentiary System for the transfer and isolation of the criminal leaders involved in the rebellion that took place on Monday morning (29) at the Altamira Regional Recovery Center and left more than 50 dead. Minister Sergio Moro regretted the deaths and determined that there will be increased intelligence activities and that the National Force will stand ready.
The Minister of Justice is closely monitoring the situation and spoke with the governor of Pará, Helder Barbalho, on Monday morning. In the early afternoon, an emergency meeting was held to discuss the matter with the Deputy National Secretary of Public Security, Freibergue Rubem do Nascimento; Deputy Secretary of the Secretariat for Integrated Operations, José Washington Luiz Santos; the director general of the Federal Police, Maurício Valeixo; the director general of the Federal Highway Police, Adriano Furtado; and the director general of the National Penitentiary Department, Fabiano Bordignon.
The assault took place in two phases in the initial phase of which the attacking CCA gang members engaged in the decapitations of the CV gang members and took two prison officers hostage. In the second phase of the attack—after the CV wing (annex) of the prison was secured by prison officials—that wing of the prison was then set on fire by CCA gang members utilizing burning mattresses. Due to prison overcrowding (Altima was meant to hold 163 prisoners but had 343 inside of it) and the fact that the CV gang members were being held in makeshift container units adapted for prison housing (while a new prison building was under construction), the fire spread rapidly and killed as many as 30 or so gang members due to asphyxiation. At one point, gang members wielding homemade knives and wearing clothing over their faces (to disguise their identities) took up positions on the prison roof tops. As a result of the intensity of the fire and the fluid security situation at the prison, corrections and police forces were unable to enter the Red Command wing of the prison for some hours. Later negotiations resulted in the release of the two prison officers, who were not harmed.
Imagery of the decapitations suggest that given the ragged edges on the victims’ severed heads/upper necks they were hastily done with improvised instruments (shanks and knives) for cutting and hacking purposes. The positioning of the heads, given what limited imagery exists, seems consistent with secular—rather than ritualized— killings. In one image, they appear to have been simply tossed next to a wall. Additionally, in support of the perceived secular killing motivation of this incident, one cell phone video shot within the prison shows a CCA gang member playing soccer with one of the severed heads. It should be noted that only 15 heads are evident in one of the post-crime scene photos—rather than one for each of the 16 decapitations claimed to have taken place—though the missing head in the photo may have been the one used as a soccer ball in the prison yard. Further, a few severed arms and legs are evident—with possibly some internal organs removed—suggesting that at least one of the victims was dismembered.
CCA gang member playing soccer with one of the severed heads
[Frame from cell phone video posted on social media]
Source: Pará Notícias (@Paranoticias1), Twitter. 29 July 2019,
Since the Altamira decapitation and arson attack, the ringleaders and major perpetrators of the incident have been transferred to other prison facilities: “Ten prisoners were taken to federal facilities outside Pará state, while the remaining 36 will be redistributed to other prisons within the state.” Law enforcement resources were also shifted within the state to help deter follow-on attacks and retaliatory incidents by the Comando Vermelho (CV).
This tragic event in the Altimara prison complex highlights the immediately need for prison reform in Brazil. Twenty-five of the prisoners killed in this incident were awaiting trial (presos provisórios). Most of the prisoners at the Altamira prison complex were sentence for drug trafficking, homicide, and gang association (associacão criminosa). This is very typical in Brazil’s prisons: individuals with a long list of criminal activities and association with criminal organizations are incarcerated with individual drug users or petty thieves. Brazil’s prisons therefore become a laboratory for experimentation. Individuals in prison without any gang affiliation are forced to pick a gang faction in order to survive.
This incident, which resulted in 58 total deaths, is representative of ongoing street and prison violence between Brazil’s two largest gangs—the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) and Red Command (CV)—and their vassal gangs and criminal allies. These gangs have been in direct conflict since a two-decades truce broke down within the last few years as they compete over Brazil’s valuable narcotics trade. Pará state in Brazil has strategic value due to its port of Belém which is on a key cocaine smuggling route into the country. The decapitation component of these killings is indicative of gang-directed ‘terrorism.’ This form of terrorism is essentially a fusion of criminal and political motivations since it is aimed at containing rivals to achieve power and influence in the streets and in the prisons. It draws upon psychological warfare techniques—with one gang confederation now attempting to out ‘terrorize’ the other.
The use of beheadings to instill terror is consistent with the earlier January 2017 Alcacuz prison incident in Natal, Brazil between these two large Brazilian gangs and their satellite organizations. In this most recent incident, however, the 16 beheadings far surpass in magnitude the 3 beheadings of the prior Alcacuz prison incident and the even earlier ones in October 2016 and August 2014 with 3 and 2 decapitations respectively. This suggests Comando Classe A may be attempting to make a name for itself in the Brazilian criminal underworld by raising the overall level of barbarism by means of this prison attack. Such activity—and the potential for even more heinous retaliatory acts—is expected to continue well into the foreseeable future.
Benjamin Lessing noted in a 2017 essay that Brazil’s largest gangs, the CV and PCC, originated in Brazil’s prisons and then went on to dominate street crime through armed occupation of favelas while orchestrating terrorist attacks in Brazil’s cities (such as a notable campaign in São Paulo in 2006). Prisons are core components of the power structure of Brazilian gangs. As Robert Muggah and his colleagues at the Igarapé Institute have observed, Brazil’s prison riots result as a consequence of severe overcrowding, inhumane conditions, and violent competition among rival gangs. Muggah and his colleagues explain:
Another reason why Brazil’s state prisons experience brutal riots so often is inter-factional violence between drug trafficking organizations. State authorities have effectively relinquished control of prisons to criminal factions that now act as de facto judges, jurors and executioners. Rival gangs have divided up the facilities and actively recruit new members in exchange for protection and welfare support for their families. When prison riots break out, as they frequently do, under-resourced and under-staffed authorities can do little more than contain the violence, intervening only after the worst of it is over.
While this current attack is extreme, it follows in a long line of extreme prison violence throughout Brazil, including outbreaks of violence and rioting in Rondônia (2002), Maranhão (2010), Pernambuco (2011), Rio de Janeiro (2014) and Roraima, Rio Grande do Norte and Amazonas between 2017 and 2019. This assault is also the most violent outbreak of prison violence in Brazil since the Carandiru prison riot in 1992. That incident involved the massacre of 111 inmates, leading to the formation of Brazil’s most powerful gangs the First Capital Command (PCC).
The situation in Brazil is emblematic of the challenges of criminal insurgencies and crime wars. Attending to these challenges will involve addressing the gangs’ political dimensions together with their criminal exploits. Gangs and violent non-state actors (VNSAs) control territory in the favelas and prisons in the effective absence of the state. Responding to this will require a variety of counterinsurgency (COIN) geared to counter-criminal insurgency. Restoring the authority and legitimacy of the state in these areas dominated by gangues territoriais (territorial, third generation gangs) must become a state priority.
Gil Alessi, “Rebelião em presídio do Pará deixa ao menos 57 mortos.” El País. 29 July 2019, https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2019/07/29/politica/1564416995_796203.html.
Parker Asmann, “Northern Brazil Prison Massacre Suggests Shifting Criminal Dynamics.” InSight Crime. 1 August 2019, https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/northern-brazil-prison-massacre-suggests-shifting-criminal-dynamics/.
“Brazil jail riot in Para state leaves 57 dead as gangs fight.” BBC News. 30 July 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-49157858.
“Brazil prison riot leaves 57 dead, 16 decapitated in ‘settling of accounts’ between rival gangs.” CBS News. 30 July 2019, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/brazil-prison-riot-dozens-dead-and-16-decapitated-alatmira-prison-para-state-2019-07-30/.
Tatiana Arias and Ivana Kottasová, “Prison riot in Brazil leaves 16 inmates decapitated and dozens more killed.” CNN. 30 July 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/29/americas/brazil-prison-riots-intl/index.html.
Robert Muggah, Carolina Taboada, and Dandara Tinoco, “Q&A: Why Is Prison Violence So Bad in Brazil?” Americas Quarterly. 2 August 2019, https://www.americasquarterly.org/content/qa-why-prison-violence-so-bad-brazil.
“Presos de Altamira são mortos dentro de caminhão durante transferência para Belém; governo do Pará apura circunstâncias.” G1. Globo.com. 31 July 2019, https://g1.globo.com/pa/para/noticia/2019/07/31/presos-de-altamira-sao-mortos-dentro-de-onibus-durante-transferencia-para-belem.ghtml.
Portuguese to English translations provided by José de Arimatéia da Cruz.
 For listings of Portuguese language articles on this incident, see “29 JUL: CLIPPING SUSIPE.” Superintendência do Sistema Penitenciário. 29 July 2019; http://www.susipe.pa.gov.br/sites/default/files/29_07.pdf and “30 JUL: CLIPPING SUSIPE.” Superintendência do Sistema Penitenciário. 30 July 2019; http://www.susipe.pa.gov.br/sites/default/files/30_07.pdf.
 “Brazil jail riot in Para state leaves 57 dead as gangs fight.” BBC News. 30 July 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-49157858.
 See photos 5 and 6 in “Rebelião deixa mortos em presído no interior do Pará.” Karina Pinto, “Anúncio de nomes de mortos no Pará tem choro e desespero; veja lista.” Folha de S.Paulo. 29 July 2019 (Updated 30 July), https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/cotidiano/2019/07/anuncio-de-nomes-de-mortos-no-para-tem-choro-e-desespero-veja-lista.shtml. For the video imagery of the gang member playing soccer with the severed head, see Pará Notícias (@Paranoticias1), 29 July 2019, https://twitter.com/Paranoticias1/status/1155816981750263811.
 Parker Asmann, “Northern Brazil Prison Massacre Suggests Shifting Criminal Dynamics.” InSight Crime. 1 August 2019, https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/northern-brazil-prison-massacre-suggests-shifting-criminal-dynamics/.
 One interesting fact about the State of Para is the following: In Pará, there are 48 prison units with a capacity of 9,934 prisoners, according to the Superintendence of the State Penitentiary System (Susipe). The prison population is 17,855 prisoners, of which 42.93% are provisional (presos provisórios). In addition to accommodating several provisional prisoners among convicted criminals and gang members, the Altimara prison complex has also been cited by a report by the National Council of Justice (CNJ) to be overcrowded and in horrible condition to house humans.
 The official death toll has been raised from 57 to 58 fatalities. In addition, 4 prisoners involved in the incident (presumably Comando Classe A gang members) were found suffocated to death in two cells of a prison bus while in the city of Maraba as they were being moved to a new prison facility. This brings the total number of fatalities linked to the original incident to 62. Maria Ramirez Uribe, Flora Charner, and Ivana Kottasová, “Four more inmates killed after deadly riot in Brazil.” CNN. 31 July 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/31/americas/brazil-prison-riot-inmates-killed-in-transit-intl/index.html.
 For more information on the shifting criminal gang alliances in Brazil, see Parker Asmann, “Northern Brazil Prison Massacre Suggests Shifting Criminal Dynamics.” InSight Crime.
 “Brazil jail riot in Para state leaves 57 dead as gangs fight.” BBC News and Parker Asmann, “Northern Brazil Prison Massacre Suggests Shifting Criminal Dynamics.” InSight Crime.
 “Brazil prisoners beheaded in riot at Natal prison.” BBC News. 15 January 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-38626821. Such beheadings, while infrequent have been seen in Brazil in the past, though they typically take place on a much smaller scale. See Jonathan Watts, “Brazilian prisoners behead two inmates during riot.” The Guardian. 25 August 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/25/brazilian-prisoners-behead-two-inmates-riot and “Inmates Beheaded in Brazil Prison Mutinies.” Newser. 18 October 2016, https://www.newser.com/story/232710/18-die-in-brazil-prison-mutinies.html.
 Benjamin Lessing, “Brazil’s prison massacres are a frightening window into gang warfare.” Washington Post (Monkey Cage), 17 January 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/01/17/brazils-prison-massacres-are-a-frightening-window-into-gang-warfare/?utm_term=.edc1c6128792.
 Robert Muggah, Carolina Taboada and Dandara Tinoco, “Q&A: Why Is Prison Violence So Bad in Brazil?” Americas Quarterly. 2 August 2019, https://www.americasquarterly.org/content/qa-why-prison-violence-so-bad-brazil.
 Robert Muggah, “Opinion: Brazil's Prison Massacres Send A Dire Message.” NPR. 28 May 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/05/28/727667809/opinion-brazils-gruesome-prison-massacres-send-a-dire-message.
 Ibid, note 12.
 See John P. Sullivan. “Criminal Insurgency in the Americas.” Small Wars Journal. 13 February 2010, https://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docs-temp/364-sullivan.pdf and Robert Muggah and John P. Sullivan, “The Coming Crime Wars.’ Foreign Policy. 21 September 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/09/21/the-coming-crime-wars/.
 Claudio Ramos da Cruz and David H. Ucko. “Beyond the Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora: Countering Comando Vermelho’s Criminal Insurgency.” Small Wars & Insurgencies. 2009, 29:1, 38-67, https://doi.org/10.1080/09592318.2018.1404772.
 Christian Vianna de Azevedo, “Criminal Insurgency in Brazil: The Case of Rio de Janeiro: Context, Confrontation Issues and Implications for Brazilian Public Security.” Small Wars Journal. 22 January 2018, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/criminal-insurgency-brazil.
Paul Rexton Kan, “Busted: The Micropower of Prisons in Narco-States.” Small Wars Journal, 5 December 2016.
Benjamin Lessing, Inside out: The challenge of prison-based criminal organizations. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, September 2016.
Carlos Frederico de Oliveira Pereira, Gangues Territorias e Direito International dos Conflitos Armadas. Curitiba: Juruá Editora, 2016.
John P. Sullivan, Robert J. Bunker, and José de Arimatéia da Cruz, “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 12: Brazilian Prison Gangs Attack Civil Infrastructure in Fortaleza and Other Cities in Ceará State.” Small Wars Journal, 17 January 2019.