In the central Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, prison inmates are dying by lot.
In a grisly protest against "inhuman" living conditions, inmates in two state prisons in Belo Horizonte, 200 miles from here, have methodically selected and slain five of their number in the last two months.
"This death pact is the only way to denounce this hell and that we are here inside it," declared Jefferson Maurilo Serra, 24, currently serving seven years in the Lagoinha Prison for assault.
Inmates there and in another detention center have vowed to continue this "lottery of death" as long as conditions remain unchanged.
At dawn Wednesday, the lottery claimed its fifth victim, as Roberto Carlos de Oliveira, 19, was strangled with a rag and pummeled to death by six prisoners.
Startled from his sleep, de Oliveira pleaded with his assailants, "For the love of God, don't kill me," according to one inmate's testimony. "Here, God's name doesn't count," one of the attackers was reported to have responded.
In the last two months, the overcrowded detention system has become a virtual powder keg. Penitentiaries are full, and there are 18,000 convicted felons waiting to begin prison terms, an aide to Gov. Helio Garcia said. As a result, new prisoners are jammed into police precinct jails and holding centers, where they may spend months awaiting trial.
Condemned murderers mingle with the newly arrested, and up to 20 inmates occupy cells built for four. Hunger strikes, murders and prisoner rebellions have rocked Lagoinha Prison and the Precinct for Theft and Larceny, facilities the inmates have dubbed "Auschwitz."
Public Security Secretary Christim Jacques Dias Fortes has called conditions at the 30-year-old Lagoinha Prison, which was built for 120 inmates and houses 245, "veritable human degradation."
A state prison official charged this week that officials have been selling space in the relatively well-appointed prisons for as much as $1,000 to prisoners in the overcrowded holding jails.
Gov. Garcia has deplored the "lamentable" events in the two prisons and has called for judicial reform and increased federal aid. The Belo Horizonte human rights delegation has declared a "state of emergency" in the two prisons and called for the immediate withdrawal of all prisoners.
Late yesterday afternoon President Jose Sarney and Justice Minister Fernando Lyra announced emergency funding of more than $60 million to alleviate overcrowding of the country's prisons. In Minas Gerais, which will receive about $4 million of the funds, construction of new prison facilities is to begin immediately.
Lagoinha Prison has been condemned, but a public security spokesman said that a new facility will not be ready for 10 months. So far, no other prisons have been the scene of similar death lotteries, but public officials fear the protests could spread.
"This could become an epidemic," said public security spokesman Vargas Vilaca.