Shortly after midnight on New Year's Eve, hundreds of Manaus inmates watched as the sky lit up with fireworks, paid for by the gangs that dominate the jail system. The revelry continued into the next afternoon, and inmates celebrated with wives and girlfriends. But then guards noticed something strange: The prisoners were asking guests to go. What happened next would go beyond any worst-case scenario, a brutality that would lay bare a failed prison system and the worst bloodshed at any Brazilian prison in 25 years. What follows is based on exclusive AP access to Complexo Penitenciario Anisio Jobim, footage from inmates' phones, forensics reports, and interviews with victims' families, lawyers, guards, judges, the warden, and investigators. "This was unprecedented," says Carlos Procopio dos Reis, in charge of the Manaus medical forensics unit. "I still dream that I am in a truck throwing heads for people to catch."
Designed for 592 inmates, the prison held 1,224 on New Year's Day. Inmates from the Family of the North took a guard hostage, then announced they would kill all rival gang members. "We will kick out of this prison every single PCC brain!" a prisoner yelled. The Family of the North moved quickly. Carrying knives, homemade shivs, and pistols, they took another 14 guards and staff hostage, and over the next 15 minutes killed several PCC members as screams filled the lockup. They began dismembering bodies, lining 39 heads up on the floor, piling limbs, and cutting out 13 eyes and two hearts. A transvestite prisoner was made to take bites of a heart, throwing up as she did. By 9pm, a full police battalion was firing on 225 prisoners trying to escape, some by climbing walls. At 3am, an agreement was reached and by dawn, the first of 39 heads arrived at the coroner's office. In total, 57 prisoners were killed. "To this day, I close my eyes and see parts of bodies of inmates everywhere," says a now-fired guard. "For me that New Year's Day will never end." (Read more prison riot stories.)