Gang members in a women’s prison in Honduras slaughtered 46 other women inmates by spraying them with gunfire, hacking them with machetes and then locking survivors in their calls and dousing them with flammable liquid, an official said Wednesday.
The carnage in Tuesday’s riot was the worst atrocity at a women’s prison in recent memory, something President Xiomara Castro called “monstrous.”
Relatives said inmates at the facility had been threatened for weeks by members of the notorious Barrio 18 gang.
Chillingly, the gang members were able to arm themselves with prohibited weapons, brush past guards and attack; they even carried with them their own locks, to shut their victims inside apparently to burn them to death. The intensity of the fire left the walls of the cells blackened and beds reduced to twisted heaps of metal.
“A group of armed people went to the cellblock of a rival gang, locked the doors, opened fire on those inside and apparently — this is still under investigation — used some kind of oil to set fire to them,” said Juan López Rochez, the chief of operations for the country’s National Police.
Castro said Tuesday’s riot at the prison in the town of Tamara, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northwest of Honduras’ capital, was “planned by maras (street gangs) with the knowledge and acquiescence of security authorities.”
Castro fired Security Minister Ramón Sabillón, and replaced him with Gustavo Sánchez, who had been serving as head of the National Police.
But Castro but did not explain how inmates identified as members of the Barrio 18 gang were able to get guns and machetes into the prison, or move freely into an adjoining cell block and slaughter all the prisoners there. Initial reports suggested the doors to the gang’s cell block had been left open, facilitating the attack.
The amount of weaponry found in the prison after the riot was impressive: 18 pistols, an assault rifle, two machine pistols and two grenades — all of which were smuggled into the prison.
“Obviously, there must have been human failures,” López Rochez said. “We are investigating all the employees at the center.”
Sandra Rodríguez Vargas, the assistant commissioner for Honduras’ prison system, said the attackers “removed” guards at the facility — none appeared to have been injured — around 8 a.m. Tuesday.
Twenty-six of the victims were burned to death and the remainder shot or stabbed, said Yuri Mora, the spokesman for Honduras’ national police investigation agency. At least seven inmates were being treated at a Tegucigalpa hospital.
The riot’s death toll surpassed that of a fire at a female detention center in Guatemala in 2017, when girls at a shelter for troubled youths set fire to mattresses to protest rapes and other mistreatment at the overcrowded institution. The smoke and fire killed 41 girls.
The worst prison disaster in a century also occurred in Honduras, in 2012, at the Comayagua men’s penitentiary, where 361 male inmates died in a fire possibly caused by a match, cigarette or some other open flame.
There were ample warnings ahead of Tuesday’s tragedy, according to Johanna Paola Soriano Euceda, who was waiting outside the morgue in Tegucigalpa for news about her mother, Maribel Euceda, and sister, Karla Soriano. Both were on trial for drug trafficking but were held in the same area as convicted prisoners.
Soriano Euceda said they had told her Sunday that “they (Barrio 18 members) were out of control, they were fighting with them all the time. That was the last time we talked.”
Another woman, who did not want to give her name for fear of reprisals, said she was waiting for news about a friend, Alejandra Martínez, 26, who was been held in the ill-fated Cell Block One on robbery charges.
“She told me the last time I saw her on Sunday that the (Barrio) 18 people had threatened them, that they were going to kill them if they didn’t turn over a relative,” she said.
Gangs sometimes demand victims “turn over” a friend or relative by giving the gang their name, address and description, so that enforcers can later find and kidnap, rob or kill them.
Officials described the killings as a “terrorist act,” but also acknowledged that gangs essentially had ruled some parts of the prison.
Julissa Villanueva, head of the prison system, suggested the riot started because of recent attempts by authorities to crack down on illicit activity inside prison walls and called Tuesday’s violence a reaction to moves “we are taking against organized crime.”
“We will not back down,” Villanueva said in a televised address after the riot.
Gangs wield broad control inside the country’s prisons, where inmates often set their own rules and sell prohibited goods.
They were also apparently able to smuggle in guns and other weapons, a recurring problem in Honduran prisons.
“The issue is to prevent people from smuggling in drugs, grenades and firearms,” said Honduran human rights expert Joaquin Mejia. “Today’s events show that they have not been able to do that.”
Meanwhile, the grim task continued of trying to identify the bodies, some terribly burned. Officials on Wednesday began turning over some of the corpses to families for burial.
The wait for news was torture for many families of inmates. Dozens of anxious, angry relatives gathered outside the rural prison.
“We are here dying of anguish, of pain ... we don’t have any information,” said Salomón García, whose daughter is an inmate at the facility.
Tuesday’s riot may increase the pressure on Honduras to emulate the drastic zero-tolerance, no-privileges prisons set in up in neighboring El Salvador by President Nayib Bukele. While El Salvador’s crackdown on gangs has given rise to rights violations, it has also proved immensely popular in a country long terrorized by street gangs.
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