Throughout the 90s, São Paulo’s House of Detention contained approximately 8,000 of Latin America’s most violent criminals. Better known as Carandiru, it was once the largest prison on the continent. On October 2, 1992, a massive fight broke out between prisoners that ultimately resulted in 111 inmate deaths. That day, there were 84 state military police officers present, and 102 bullets were fired. The nine guys who weren’t shot in their vital organs got knifed, but the cops (none of whom were killed, by the way) swore on their mothers’ graves that the prisoners were already carved up by the time guards arrived. If the math isn’t enough to make things seem a little fishy to you, take a closer look at that scrapbook down there. We see one partial decapitation and another guy with a hole in his chest the size of a fucking tennis ball. That doesn’t exactly scream “self-defense.” Ronaldo Mazotto de Lima worked at the prison for over a decade. He was also one of the first people to witness the aftermath of the carnage that’s now referred to as the Carandiru Massacre. After the jail’s destruction, Mazotto de Lima transferred to a minimum-security prison in Serra Azul. He brought more than his experience to the new job. He also took along some of the only surviving evidence of the massacre: over 2,000 photos, 300 personal effects, and ten hours of grisly video footage. It was all taken shortly after the violence subsided, and he wants to be sure that history doesn’t forget what he witnessed. So we asked him to help us understand.
“I’ll never forget the uprising. It lasted three days, and I was kept hostage the entire time. It all started with prisoners taking control of the eighth and ninth wards and taking hostage every employee they saw. At the beginning, we tried to run or fight them—guards and other employees were chasing after prisoners with iron bars in their hands, but the inmates outnumbered us, and they had knives. This resulted in us being locked up in the storehouse in the sixth ward for three days.”
“For five years, I alone took care of the fifth floor of the ninth ward. Every day I would open the cells, release the prisoners, and count them. It was direct contact, and if someone wanted to kill you, he could easily do so. They had no problems with guards who knew where to draw the line, but some prison employees would seize drugs from one cell and sell them to other inmates. They were seen as criminals and had to answer to the laws of the prisoners. Paybacks happened, and guards were frequently murdered.”
“I started to gather all this material because I wanted to remember my version of this story forever. I wanted to tell what happened behind those walls. Most of the public knowledge about the prison has come from the prisoners. There hasn’t been a peep from other prison guards. That’s why I photographed, videotaped, and kept some of the prisoners’ personal objects. I want to exhibit all this, give lectures on what it was like inside Carandiru, and let youngsters know that drug dealing isn’t worth it—that you can end up in jail and wake up with a body that’s full of holes on a bloody floor.”
“I have knives made from pieces of iron, crack pipes, tattoo machines, a Bible with a hollow part where you can hide a gun, polystyrene grenades, seized cell phones, and decks of cards made of sheets of paper because gambling was forbidden. I even have
—devices used to produce
[a type of alcohol distilled from sugarcane juice] made out of two pieces of battery, each with one end open. To make the booze, the batteries are connected through a wooden stick and a piece of wire, plugged into a power source, and put in water with potato peels. I also have pictures of prisoners, facilities, churches, temples, corpses… almost every day, there was at least one dead man. They would kill for any reason. There were people who were murdered because they snored at night.”
“I met Colonel Ubiratan Guimarães [the official responsible for ordering the offensive at the prison and who was sentenced to 632 years before being released and assassinated in a separate incident] inside Carandiru, and we became friends. One day I asked him to tell me his version of what had happened: ‘It was not a massacre at all. We had to take action and regain control of a prison facing an uprising and fire. Around 2 PM, employees and cell guards were forced to flee, and prisoners took complete control of the ward. There was chaos from then on. The plumbing had been destroyed, water had risen ten inches from the floor, and the building was in total darkness. At 4:30 PM, I was told to enter the ward and help put a stop to the uprising. There were more than 2,000 prisoners—dangerous, armed, and with nothing to lose—fighting against 90 policemen. When the cops finally managed to get in, there was an ambush: Cooking oil and nails with HIV-contaminated blood were all over the stairs. It was hell.’”
“Many uprisings happened exclusively because of prisoner retaliation. Once we declared a prisoner a runaway. After three days, a leg appeared under a bed, then an arm in a pot… Eventually we discovered other body parts and put them all together—it was the supposed escapee, who had been killed and mutilated so his body would not be found.”
“It’s very peaceful In Serra Azul! I gather prisoners to go to the fields to take care of sheep and vegetables. I have never again faced an uprising. In the six years I’ve been here, only one prisoner has escaped. We even joke about never having adrenaline rushes at work. The prison is surrounded by the type of barbed wire farms use. No one runs away. They are low-danger prisoners—no one belongs to gangs or factions, they want to do their time and behave well so they can get out earlier.”
Stroll with Ronaldo over Carandiru’s since-razed grounds and rifle through his most gruesome artifacts and portraiture this month on VBS.TV.