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Inmates are seen on a roof during an uprising at Alcacuz prison in Rio Grande do Norte state, Brazil, on Jan. 17, 2017.Josemar Goncalves/Reuters

Brazilian authorities are scrambling to stop a wave of prison violence that has killed at least 125 inmates in two weeks, many with their heads cut off or their hearts and intestines ripped out.

Three massacres and many smaller fatal clashes, all in northern states, have followed a pattern that security forces have been unable to get ahead of. It starts with an hours-long riot inside a penitentiary, then military police are sent in to assist severely outnumbered guards and distraught families wait outside while inmates post on social-media photos they take of chopped up body parts.

The factors fuelling the violence among rival gang members are so complex that authorities say some potential remedies could exacerbate the problem. And the possibility of continued killings is raising fears the violence could spill into slums in major cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, where drug operations are run in conjunction with bosses in prisons.

"Stopping the bloodshed begins with the federal and state governments calling this what it is: a public emergency," said Robert Muggah, research director for the Igarape Institute, a Brazil-based think-tank that focuses on security. "This is a problem from hell that has been festering for half a century."

President Michel Temer was initially slow to respond, taking three days to publicly acknowledge the first massacre, and he was ridiculed for calling it a "terrible accident." But the government has since announced a series of measures aimed at stopping the violence.

National guard troops are being dispatched to hot spots, thousands of inmates are being shuffled among prisons and Mr. Temer has announced plans to build five new lockups. Meanwhile, justice authorities are examining ways to speed up a legal process that keeps thousands locked up for months or years while their cases are processed.

So far, nothing seems to be working. After several days of relative calm, 26 inmates were killed late Saturday in clashes inside two adjoining prisons in the northern state of Rio Grande do Norte. Authorities said members of the Sao Paulo-based First Command, Brazil's largest criminal gang, known by the Portuguese acronym PCC, fought with local gang Crime Syndicate of Rio Grande do Norte.

Authorities said military police would not enter the prisons until daylight Sunday because it was too dangerous. "There are more than 1,000 prisoners, all out of their cells, and some are armed," military police Major Wellington Camilo da Silva told reporters. "What we are doing now is trying to avoid a massive escape." Prisoners returned to their cells by Sunday. Police found 26 bodies, many of them decapitated.

The wave of violence began with the arrival of the new year, when 56 inmates were killed in the northern state of Amazonas. Authorities said the Family of the North gang targeted members of the First Command in a clash over control of drug-trafficking routes in northern states. Many were decapitated, their heads tossed outside prison walls.

Then, on Jan. 6, in the neighbouring state of Roraima, 33 prisoners were killed, many with their hearts and intestines ripped out. Authorities said First Command members instigated the bloodshed against other prisoners for motives not entirely clear.

Ten other inmates were killed in smaller prison clashes in Amazonas and the northeastern state of Paraiba during the first few days of the month.

The violence comes as Latin America's largest country is mired in its worst recession in decades, which has trickled down to the prison system. On Tuesday, prison guards in Rio de Janeiro state began a partial strike to protest not being paid since November. While guards continued their patrols, they did not let families in to visit, a situation that will likely add to already high tensions.

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