A three-hour standoff Wednesday ended with the death of two prisoners and one guard during a thwarted prison break from Costa Rica’s largest prison, the maximum security La Reforma Penitentiary, northwest of capital San José in the province of Alajuela.
Five others, including three guards, were injured in the attack, which began around 2:30 p.m. At press time, details of the attack are still emerging.
Armed with firearms, smoke bombs, fake grenades, and radio devices, 14 prisoners took a group of at 15 guards, prison officials and at least one visitor hostage before forcing their way through the prison complex. According to Jorge Rojas, Director of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), prisoner Erlyn Hurtado, 31, initiated the jailbreak when he opened his cell door using a set of prison master keys. Hurtado, wielding a .380 pistol, held up prison guards while he freed fellow prisoner Johel Araya, whose age the OIJ could not confirm at press time. The two began opening the cells of other inmates.
In the ensuing chaos, police intervened and attempted to negotiate the hostages’ release. According to Rojas, the prisoners were demanding a bus be arranged to take them away from the prison. When the prisoners refused to negotiate and threatened “to kill every hostage,” a shootout ensued. Prison guard Francis Morales, 39, died in the shootout.
“The situation is still under investigation, though we have been informed that the group of prisoners, after threatening the guards, initiated the shootings,” said Justice Minister Hernando Paris on Wednesday. “The decision for the police to return fire was a reaction and necessary response to the severity of the situation.”
Hurtado was killed in the shootout by police just a few feet from the prison’s perimeter gate. Hurtado had been serving a 210-year sentence – reduced to Costa Rica’s 50-year maximum – for participating in a botched 2005 bank robbery and kidnapping in the cloud forest town of Monteverde, in north-central Costa Rica. In that bloody attack on Monteverde’s Banco Nacional branch, nine people were killed, including Hurtado’s two brothers, and 17 were injured during a 28-hour standoff (TT, March 11, 2005).
A second prisoner killed in Wednesday’s standoff is Johnny Rodríguez, 51, who participated in a 2006 escape attempt from the same prison (TT, Oct. 31, 2006).
According to the OIJ, Araya, who was shot six times in the failed jailbreak from La Reforma in 2006, is believed to have been the mastermind of Wednesday’s attempted escape.
In a press conference on Thursday morning, Rojas said the ongoing investigation would center on how the prisoners were able to obtain firearms within the prison. While it was originally believed that the prisoners had taken them from prison guards, Rojas said that the OIJ would investigate how the prisoners were able to obtain smoke bombs, fake grenades, cell phone devices and weapons. He also said that it appeared that someone within the prison likely assisted the prisoners.
“It is evident that there are some serious lapses in prison security in this country,” Paris said Wednesday night. “Costa Rica has to prepare itself to deal with a different type of prison system than what we are accustomed to. It appears we haven’t made appropriate alterations to the system since the escape in 2006 and now, years later, we are dealing with the loss of life again at the hands of an attempted jailbreak. We have to truly create a maximum-security prison. As of this time, Costa Rica doesn’t have a true maximum security prison.”
The OIJ also discovered a Dodge van parked just 100 meters from La Reforma’s front gate. La Reforma is located in an isolated area with no other non-prison buildings nearby. Inside the van was a cache of weapons, including AK-47 assault rifles, ammunition and $2,000 in cash. Also found in the van were masks, bulletproof vests and homemade explosives. Keys were left in the van, which had been parked there for several days.
“It appears the vehicles were intended to function as the escape vehicles for the prisoners had their attempt succeeded,” Rojas said.
Rojas also said that it was suspected that the prisoners intended to escape to Nicaragua.
An Infamous Name Resurfaces
The circulating images of Hurtado throughout national media outlets revived memories of one of Costa Rica’s darkest days.
On March 8, 2005, Hurtado, a Nicaraguan, his brother Santos Angenor Hurtado and half-brother Santos Marjory Cruz, attempted to rob a Banco Nacional branch in Monteverde in the early afternoon, armed with AK-47s. Two brothers were killed at the entrance. Hurtado entered and took took 28 people hostage. After a grueling shootout with police, Hurtado surrendered around 7:45p.m. the next day. Nine people were killed and 17 wounded.
“It was the scariest thing in my life,” a U.S. volunteer named Beth, who was held hostage in the bank, told The Tico Times in March 2005. “There was a guy with black paint on his face, like shoe polish. He didn’t talk. I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to die’” (TT, March 11, 2005).
Police killed Hurtado on Wednesday.
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