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Honduran Prisons in Spotlight again after Bloodbath

January 13, 2006

TEGUCIGALPA – A recent gunfight that left 13 inmates dead at what is supposed to be the country’s highest-security prison has again turned the spotlight on the Honduran penal system, which is plagued by overcrowding and has become just one more battlefield in the struggle for dominance among ruthless street gangs.

 

Preliminary reports from the Security Ministry and the prison service indicate that a power struggle among the inmates culminated in the Jan. 5 bloodbath at the National Penitentiary in Tegucigalpa. Some accounts say the protagonists were armed with a 9-mm pistol, and even automatic weapons.

 

THE clash took place inside the cellblock known as “Casa Blanca,” which, according to prison service chief Jaime Banegas, holds some 400 “extremely dangerous” prisoners. Images on local television showed pools of blood and bodies scattered in different areas of the prison.

 

The country’s outgoing President, Ricardo Maduro, announced Jan. 6 that he had dismissed the prison’s warden and other top officials. The head of state said that his government has fought to enforce security in the nation’s prison system, but what happened Thursday “shows there’s still a lot left to do.”

 

THIS lack of control inside our prisons cannot be tolerated,” the President said, adding that he has asked congressional leader Porfirio Lobo to expedite consideration of a penal reform bill his government put forward five months ago.

 

The measure contemplates setting up a penitentiary institute independent of the Security Ministry, a notion also embraced by President-elect Manuel Zelaya, who said that one of his first acts upon taking office Jan. 27 will be to order that prisons be separated from the Security Ministry.

 

Zelaya considers that the nation’s prisons should have more autonomy with security measures strictly enforced, because prisoners “are human beings

too.”

 

CARLOS Alberto Flores, an inmate wounded in the latest incident, said tersely that night in the Tegucigalpa hospital that he had been walking with his back to where the shooting took place, and that he “couldn’t see anything.

 

“All at once I felt I had been wounded,” he said.

 

After the massacre, police and army troops cordoned off the penitentiary, which was built within the last decade and is touted as the most secure in Honduras, though it was the scene last year of 29 unsolved murders.

 

IN this center, as in the other 23 that make up the prison system, every prisoner’s life is in jeopardy; the director of the prison service said that search operations are frequently carried out in jail cells and inevitably uncover knives, drugs, cell phones and sometimes guns.

 

Security Minister Armando Calidonio blamed the massacre on the lack of specialized equipment and trained personnel in the nation’s penal institutions, which all told house some 11,000 inmates.

 

This month’s bloodbath follows others, such as the one on April 5, 2003, at the prison farm El Porvenir on the Honduran Caribbean, in which 68 people died, 65 of them prisoners, the majority of whom were members of the infamous Mara-18 gang (TT, April 11, 2003).

 

ON May 17, 2004, 107 gang members burned to death or were asphyxiated inside the San Pedro Sula jail in northern Honduras, in a situation authorities attributed to overheated electric power lines setting off a fire (TT, May 21, 2004). Neither incident has ever been completely explained by Honduran authorities.

 

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