Honduras hands over prisons to military after deadly gang riot
Honduras has given the military police control of its prison system, following a violent clash between rival gangs that left 46 women dead at a detention center last week.
The move marks a shift in policy for the leftist government of President Xiomara Castro, who had previously advocated for demilitarizing security forces and reducing the role of the army in public safety.
But after a series of deadly incidents in the country’s overcrowded and corrupt prisons, Castro said she had no choice but to take “drastic measures” to stop the influence of organized crime inside the jails.
Gang dispute sparks fire
The latest violence erupted on Tuesday at the Women’s Center for Social Adaptation (Cefas) in Tamara, about 25 km north of the capital Tegucigalpa, where about 900 inmates are held.
According to survivors and officials, a fight broke out between members of two of Central America’s most notorious criminal organizations: the 18th Street Gang and MS-13.
Some gang members reportedly taunted their rivals from their cells, prompting the other group to set fire to the mattresses in their wing. The flames quickly spread and engulfed the area, trapping many women inside.
Some of the victims were burned to death, while others were shot, stabbed or beaten by gang members in the corridors and a prison courtyard. Some of the victims were not affiliated with any gang but were caught in the crossfire.
Relatives of the inmates gathered outside the prison, desperate for news of their loved ones. Some said they had received calls from inside the prison asking for help.
On Monday, hundreds of military police officers entered two high-security prisons in Tamara and La Tolva, where some 4,200 inmates are crammed into facilities designed for 2,500.
The officers searched the cells and confiscated weapons, ammunition, grenades and cell phones from the inmates. They also separated the gang members from each other and moved them to different wings.
The military police will now be in charge of guarding and managing all 26 prisons in Honduras, where some 20,000 inmates live in squalid and dangerous conditions. A United Nations report said that the country’s prisons are 34.2% over capacity.
Defense Minister Jose Manuel Zelaya said on Twitter that the mission was to “defeat organized crime inside the prisons and we are (also) going after the intellectual authors operating from outside”.
Castro also dismissed Security Minister Ramón Sabillón and replaced him with the head of the national police force, Gustavo Sánchez.
History of violence
Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world, with a homicide rate of 41.7 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020, according to official data.
The country is plagued by corruption and gang violence, which have infiltrated government institutions and security forces. It is also a major transit route for cocaine coming from South America to the United States.
The prison system has been a source of instability and human rights violations for years. In 2012, a fire at the Comayagua penitentiary killed 361 inmates, most of whom had never been charged or convicted of a crime.
In 2019, at least 18 people were killed in a gang-related riot at a prison in Tela. And last week, 11 people were shot dead at a pool hall in Tegucigalpa by gunmen linked to one of the gangs involved in Tuesday’s prison riot.
Castro, who took office in January after defeating her conservative rival in a disputed election, has vowed to tackle crime and poverty in Honduras. But she faces resistance from powerful elites and opposition groups who accuse her of being authoritarian and aligned with Venezuela’s socialist leader Nicolás Maduro.
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