RIO DE JANEIRO -- A wave of arson attacks is spreading across a state in southern Brazil, largely targeting police installations, public buses and even the homes of prison officials in a region that has traditionally ranked among the country's safest.
Since the end of January, there have been about 80 attacks in more than 20 cities throughout Santa Catarina, a relatively prosperous state of 6.3 million people, raising concerns about what appears to be an inability by the authorities to halt them. While much of Brazil is distracted by the annual celebrations around Carnival, which got under way on Friday, the arson attacks have continued, with local officials describing them as a violent reaction to reports of inmate abuse in Santa Catarina's prisons.
The attacks began after video images surfaced from closed-circuit recordings of events at a prison in the city of Joinville on Jan. 18. In the video, prison guards are shown to have marched dozens of inmates into a closed area, forcing them to crouch into a fetal position before firing rubber bullets at their backs and targeting some with what appears to be pepper spray.
"Prisoners decided to orchestrate the attacks to call the attention of the population and authorities to issues of management of the prison system," said Col. Nazareno Marcineiro, the commander of Santa Catarina's military police.
More broadly, the attacks have opened a window into fears around Brazil related to overcrowding and abuses in prisons. Security analysts are also unnerved that a criminal organization operating within Santa Catarina's prisons appears to have guided the attacks, much as a prison-based gang organized a traumatic uprising in São Paulo State in 2006. During that surge of violence, police headquarters, buses and public buildings were attacked over the course of several days, paralyzing Brazil's largest city and leaving about 115 people dead.
Inmates in many of Brazil's prisons often have access to mobile phones and laptop computers, allowing them to coordinate actions outside the prison walls, despite efforts by the authorities to curb the use of these technologies. A spike in targeted killings of police officers in São Paulo in 2012 was attributed to the resurgence of the First Capital Command, a group operating from São Paulo's prisons.
The arson attacks in Santa Catarina come after a wave of similar violence in the state in November 2012. In both cases, Brazilian news reports have connected the attacks to a prison-based organization called Primeiro Grupo Catarinense, or First Santa Catarina Group, which resembles, in name at least, its larger counterpart in São Paulo.
Lawyers who have interviewed prisoners about the abuse allegations corroborated the reports about the group, commonly called the P.G.C. Cynthia Maria Pinto da Luz, the president of the Human Rights Commission of the Joinville Bar Association, said the current round of attacks was "directly linked to the command of the P.G.C." and the festering anger inside prisons over the failure to improve conditions.
Santa Catarina, whose beaches are a popular vacation spot for Brazilians and tourists from Argentina and Uruguay, is going ahead with its Carnival celebrations despite the violence. Nevertheless, the attacks are focusing scrutiny on Santa Catarina's public security policies; the police there have fatally shot at least one suspect in the attacks this month and have arrested more than a dozen suspects. At least one person, a 19-year-old cook, was badly burned in one of the attacks, in a bus set on fire in the city of Florianópolis.
At the same time, Santa Catarina's prison officials have been put on the defensive. Bruno Renato Teixeira, a federal human rights official, said that Santa Catarina had one of the worst records of inmate abuse claims among Brazil's states, and that its prisons were about 70 percent over the capacity for which they were built.
Leandro Lima, the director of Santa Catarina's prison system, said that 14 guards were removed from their duties in connection with the video from the Joinville prison. Still, he told reporters that the causes of the latest attacks were "more complex" than the images captured of guards firing rubber bullets at squatting inmates.
Prison guards in Santa Catarina, however, have said that the authorities overseeing the system are trying to shift responsibility to guards even though prisons are increasingly overcrowded and understaffed. "The government has to put the blame on somebody," said Wolney Chucre, a union leader among Santa Catarina's prison guards.
Taylor Barnes contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.