LATIN AMERICA

The time bomb waiting to explode inside Guatemala’s prison system

Mafia leaders commission murders, kidnappings and extortions to outside accomplices

Guatemala -
Inmates seen inside a Guatemalan prison.
Inmates seen inside a Guatemalan prison.EL PERIÓDICO

Guatemalan officials face an explosive situation as they try to come to grips with a lethal prison system where mafia gangs regularly use deadly force to control facilities, ordering their accomplices on the outside to commit murders, kidnappings and extortion schemes, a new NGO study reports.

The Center for National Economics Research (CIEN) concludes that Guatemalan authorities have completely lost control of the country’s penitentiaries. “The only reason behind this was the abandonment of the prison system that began decades ago,” said Corinne Dedik, a CIEN expert who was in charge of the study, in an interview with EL PAÍS.

The report points out that the over the last decade Guatemala has been rocked by crime and insecurity stemming from the country’s juvenile gangs – the notorious maras – and other organized mafias whose bosses control them from inside prisons where they are serving long sentences.

At the same time, these leaders have access to weapons, cellphones and computers – technology sometimes much more efficient than what prison officials have at their disposal.

“They are also being helped by drug traffickers, who have strong leadership and powerful economic interests. The penal system is not prepared to deal with this situation,” said Dedik. According to statistics compiled by CIEN, 75 percent of extortions that take place in Guatemalan society are ordered from inside the penitentiary system.

At the same time, Guatemala’s prisons are lacking when it comes to inmate classification: no distinctions are made between inmates’ convictions, criminal profiles or age groups. The only profile distinctions authorities make is between sexes and whether a convicted criminal belongs to one of the gangs.

Prison overcrowding is also scandalous. The Guatemalan prison system is supposed to hold 6,500 inmates but at the end of September there were some 17,000 people being held in Guatemalan jails – ranking it among the 10 worst in the world for overcrowding.

While inmates have access to medical care and dentistry, there are no anti-addiction programs or detox treatments for alcohol or drugs, including crack cocaine. Narcotics are easy to find inside the country’s prisons.

The study concludes that the only way to win back the prison system is for the government to introduce far-reaching policies, as well as investing in prison infrastructure and providing guards, who are currently poorly paid, with professional training.

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