Inmates at the largest women’s prison in Honduras had been complaining for weeks that gang members were threatening them. According to authorities, the gang followed through on those threats Tuesday, killing 41 women, many burned, shot or stabbed.
Honduran President Xiomara Castro said that the riot in the town of Támara, some 50 kilometers northwest of Tegucigalpa, was “planned by gangs in full view and with the patience of security authorities.”
Castro vowed to take “drastic measures,” but did not explain how inmates identified as members of the Barrio 18 gang were able to bring weapons and machetes into the prison, or move freely to an adjoining cell block and commit the massacre.
Videos released by the government from inside the prison showed several pistols and many machetes and other bladed weapons found after the riot.
Sandra Rodríguez Vargas, deputy commissioner before the Commission for the Inspection of Penitentiary Centers, said that the attackers “evicted” the guards from the center, none of them seemed to have been injured, around 8:00 in the morning on Tuesday, and then they opened the doors of a adjoining cell block and began to murder the inmates.
They also started a fire that left cell walls blackened and bunk beds reduced to twisted heaps of metal.
At least seven inmates were being treated at a Tegucigalpa hospital for gunshot and stab wounds, according to authorities from the Hospital Escuela.
It seemed like a foretold tragedy, according to Johanna Paola Soriano Euceda, who was waiting outside the Tegucigalpa morgue for news about her mother, Maribel Euceda, and her sister, Karla Soriano. Both were being tried for drug trafficking, but were being held in the same area as the convicted prisoners.
Soriano Euceda recounted that her mother had told her on the phone on Sunday that “the girls (members of Barrio 18) were scattered, who live fighting with them and from then on we did not speak again.”
Another woman, who did not want to give her name for fear of reprisals, said she was waiting for news about a friend, 26-year-old Alejandra Martínez, confined in module one and accused of robbery.
“She told me on Sunday, the last time I saw her, that the (Barrio’s) 18 had threatened them and that if they did not hand over a relative they were going to kill them,” she said.
Gangs sometimes require their victims to “turn over” a friend or relative by giving them their name, address, and description, so gang members can later find them and kidnap, rob, or kill them.
Officials described the killings as a “terrorist act” but also acknowledged that the gangs had essentially taken over some parts of the prison.
Julissa Villanueva, Vice Minister of Security and head of prisons, suggested that the riot began in response to government actions to free prisons from the power of organized crime and assured that they will “under no circumstances allow the attack or the sabotage” by “organized crime that has hijacked the prison system of this country.”
“We are not going to give in,” he stressed in a televised message after the riot. “We are not going to negotiate.”
As Joaquín Mejía, an academic from the Reflection, Investigation and Communication Team of the Jesuits in Honduras, explained to AP, two of the biggest problems in Honduran prisons are the abandonment they suffer from the authorities and the internal control capacity of the prisons. inmates.
Although the Castro government announced an intervention to change this situation, the Támara riot evidenced a failure of the efforts to purify the prison police and prevent the entry of drugs or weapons into the prisons.
Meanwhile, the grim task of trying to identify the corpses, some terribly charred, continued.
“The forensic teams that are carrying out the cadaveric surveys confirm that there are 41 deaths that are counted,” confirmed Yuri Mora, spokesman for the Honduran Public Ministry. Many relatives of the inmates waited anxiously to receive news.
Dozens of anxious and angry relatives gathered in front of the prison, located in a rural area.
“We are here dying of pain, of anguish (…) we have no information,” said Salomón García, mother of an inmate at the center.
Azucena Martínez, whose daughter was also in prison, said that “there are already 41. We do not know if ours are also dead there, and that is what we want to know.”
The riot appears to be the worst tragedy at a women’s detention center in Central America since 2017, when 41 girls from a shelter for troubled youth in Guatemala died after setting mattresses on fire to protest rape and other ill-treatment. in that institution.
The worst prison disaster in a century also occurred in Honduras in 2012 at the Comayagua penitentiary, where 361 inmates died in a fire possibly caused by a match, cigarette or similar.
Tuesday’s riot could increase pressure on Honduras to emulate the drastic zero-tolerance, no-privilege prisons established in neighboring El Salvador by President Nayib Bukele.
Although the repression of gangs in El Salvador has led to human rights violations, it has also proved immensely popular in a country long terrorized by street gangs.